'It is big, but it could be beautiful': Winnipeg company to appeal city decision on oversized billboard

Billboard looming over Portage Avenue can remain as rooftop art gallery

A Winnipeg real estate company is heading to city hall Friday morning to make its case for maintaining an unusually large old billboard atop a century-old historic building.

Sussex Realty owns the big empty billboard on top of the Casa Loma building at the southeast corner of Portage Avenue and Sherbrook Street. The brick building greets people entering downtown from the west and was built in 1909, according to a city administrative report.

The city wants Sussex to take down the billboard, so the company will visit city council's appeal committee Friday to argue that the Winnipeg Art Gallery should get a chance to beautify the structure.

Catherine Maksymiuk, a spokesperson for the Winnipeg Art Gallery, said Sussex offered the gallery use of the billboard as an in-kind donation last year. Because of its size and location on a heritage building, the city needed to approve a request to use it before the gallery could do anything with it.

It didn't. According to the city's report on the request, the heritage department told Sussex on Nov. 20, 2017, it was a no-go. The request was officially rejected on Jan. 3. 

"Heritage does not support a roof-top billboard sign on a designated historical resource, as they do not comply with our standards and guidelines," the city's heritage department wrote.

"Billboard signage is not appropriately scaled, is dominant, overpowering and does not recall traditional building signage."

Big, but beautiful: WAG spokesperson

Maksymiuk doesn't see it that way. She says the billboard is an opportunity to bring art to Winnipeg streets. If the WAG got use of it, they'd use it to highlight local artists' work like an outdoor exhibition.

"It's just such an amazing opportunity to be showcasing Inuit art in particular, in the lead-up to the opening of the Inuit Art Centre. That would be part of our plan for this coming year, and then looking ahead, this idea of curating outdoor exhibitions," Maksymiuk said.

"I think it could be a really great addition to that intersection, which does see a lot of traffic and certainly people coming into the city and coming into the downtown."

The billboard on top of the Casa Loma is about 19 metres tall — 10 metres taller than the maximum limit set by the city — and has a surface area of about 58 square metres, compared to the city's limit of 18½.

The structure that holds it up is mounted on the roof of the building, which is also against city rules. It's fallen into disuse, but Maksymiuk said the billboard dates back to the '40s and has a sort of "industrial charm."

"I think it could be a very exciting collaboration to have art on the framework," she said. "It is big, but I think it could be beautiful.'

According to the administrative report, the Urban Planning Division recommended rejecting Sussex's request because it's too big, too tall, mounted on a roof, on top of a historic building, and isn't consistent with the classically detailed Casa Loma.

In an email sent to the city on Jan. 11, John Prystanski, Sussex's lawyer, disputed that the billboard has an adverse effect on the area and said the conditional use and variances required are compatible with the area.

Sussex didn't respond to CBC requests for comment in time for publication.

The appeal committee will discuss the issue during the public hearing portion of its Friday meeting, which starts at 9 a.m.