October 9th, 2013
City council has, for the moment at least, refused to let Ryerson University out of an agreement to keep the iconic Sam the Record Man sign on its campus.
The school was seeking to dissolve the terms of an easement the institution entered into in 2008 when it bought Sam Sniderman’s Yonge Street music store in order to make way for a new student centre. At the time, the university committed to re-installing the Record Man’s vintage marquee either on the new building or around the corner at its library on Gould.
But on Wednesday, council voted 24 to 18 to refer the issue back to city staff. A deputy city manager will now consider possible locations for the sign, and report back at an unspecified date. In the meantime the original agreement between the city and the university will remain in effect.
Councillor Josh Matlow said the vote sent a clear message to developers who might be inclined to ignore their obligation to preserve the city’s historical assets.
“Our city has a shameful history of protecting our heritage,” said Matlow. “I think there needs to be a point where we draw a line the sand and say, if you have an agreement to protect our city’s story you’ve got to meet it.”
The councillor, who wore a Sam’s-themed t-shirt under his suit jacket at council on Wednesday, accused the university of acting in bad faith and being more concerned with the ultra-modern appearance of its student centre than with preserving the city’s history.
“I think they don’t like the look of Sam’s sign on their building, and I think that they think it’s too costly to put up,” he said. “But that’s their problem, it shouldn’t be Toronto’s problem.”
Ryerson president Sheldon Levy also welcomed the decision, declaring he was confident the school could cooperate with the city to “work our way through a solution that works best for everyone.”
But he rebuffed Matlow’s assertion that the school had acted in bad faith, saying that the institution was willing to hang the sign on the Gould Street library “right now,” but that there was no consensus that a location off of Yonge would be acceptable
Where exactly the neon artifact will end up remains undecided, but there is broad agreement on council that the giant spinning records should be reinstated somewhere near the old site of Sniderman’s music outlet.
Both Mayor Rob Ford and the local councillor, Kristyn Wong-Tam, moved motions that requested that the sign be placed somewhere near the original Yonge Street location, but they were opposed by some councillors because they would have allowed Ryerson out of the deal.
Wong-Tam argued that Ryerson did all it could to abide by the agreement and said she was “perplexed” by what referring the issue to city staff will accomplish. She believes there are places off-campus where the sign could go, like a city-owned building facing Yonge-Dundas Square.
“It’s the busiest intersection in the country, it is a place where we celebrate music and hold concerts all the time,” she said.
Nicholas Jennings, a music historian and member of the Save Our Sign group, lauded council’s decision because he said it will give more time for the public to weigh in on where the historic sign should land.
To his mind, however, there is only one place where Sam’s oversized records should go: the site of the old Yonge Street store.
“The sign really should be in its historic home,” he said. “You take a historic symbol and remove it from its context, it diminishes its power, it diminishes its meaning. That sign is so associated with Yonge Street that really, that’s where it belongs.”
According to a staff report, Ryerson first told the city in November 2012 that it wanted to get out of its agreement. The university cited, among other things, a conflict between the gaudy signage and the modernist design of the student centre, high maintenance costs, possible mercury spillage, and a “decrease in the number of qualified neon signage professionals.”
In lieu of hanging the sign on campus, the school offered a commemoration plan comprised of a “commemorative insert” placed on the sidewalk where the store once stood, a explanatory plaque, and an online tribute to Sam’s and the Toronto music scene.
In August, city staff recommended council endorse the commemoration plan and dissolve the deal with Ryerson. But the potential loss of what many consider a symbol of Toronto’s rich musical heritage sparked outcry, and the late Sam Sniderman’s son Bobby publicly opposed the idea.
Sniderman could not be reached for comment on Wednesday.
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