The landmark BowMac sign in the 1100 block of West Broadway Avenue—a survivor of Vancouver’s golden age of neon signage—is 60 years old this year but it may not get much older.
The deal that saved the sign from demolition in 1997—by making it the backdrop for the logo of Toys “R” Us—the new tenant of 1154-1174 West Broadway—apparently expires when the tenancy of the beleaguered bigbox toy store expires—something that is now just a matter of time.
All 1,758 Toys “R” Us stores in the world are expected to either close or be sold, as the U.S.-based toy retailer is hopelessly drowning in $5 billion dollars worth of red ink.
The nearly 800 U.S. Toys “R” Us stores, for example, are liquidating and closing, while there is a search underway to find a buyer for all 82 Toys “R” Us stores in Canada. (Reportedly there are several interested parties!).
This all but guarantees that the Toys “R” Us store in the 1100 block of West Broadway Avenue will change hands and then have to change its sign. And that will mean seriously messing with the underlying BowMac sign for the first time since 1997, when the City of Vancouver recognized it as a heritage landmark deserving of protection and the Toys “R” Us lightbox sign was artfully and nondestructively superimposed over top of it.
In this eventuality, John Atkin, local historian and architect of the overlapping “ToyMac” compromise which saved the BowMac sign, recently assured News 1130 that “the BowMac is actually a heritage-listed object for the City of Vancouver.”
Unfortunately for people who care about this singular piece of Vancouver history, it appears that the 1997 heritage revitalization agreement that Atkin refers to was not written to extend heritage protection to the BowMac sign beyond the tenancy of Toys “R” Us at 1154-1174 West Broadway Avenue.
New owner means negotiating a new heritage agreement
All that I can find online pertaining to the 1997 heritage revitalization agreement to preserve the BowMac sign is a report on the HRA, dated May 21, 1997, which was submitted to the City of Vancouver’s planning and environment committee.
The crux of the BowMac sign’s limited protection is spelled out in the second of report’s opening recommendations:
“THAT Council authorize the City to enter into a heritage revitalization agreement with the owner of the site at 1154-1176 West Broadway to vary the Sign By-law to permit the continued use and addition of new sign text to the existing non-conforming Bowmac sign and to secure its rehabilitation and maintenance for the duration of the Toys R Us tenancy lease…”
This recommendation apparently tells us three things:
- The BowMac sign is protected only as long as Toys “R” Us leases the property.
- Toys “R” Us did not own the 1154-1174 W Broadway property in 1997.
- The owner of the site that is party to the HRA is not Toys “R” Us.
Later in the report, there is more detail about the Toys “R” Us tenancy and the limits of the HRA:
“Toys ‘R’ Us has a 20 year lease of the premises, with two consecutive renewal options of five years. Upon termination of the lease, a new HRA will have to ]be] negotiated or the sign will be demolished.”
If we’re counting from when the report was written in 1997, the original Toys ‘R’ Us lease expired last year, in 2017. A five-year extension from then would run until 2022.
The 1997 HRA between the City of Vancouver and the owner of 1154-1174 W Broadway was, at the time, a one-of-a-kind deal. It was one part relaxation of the sign by-law, to allow the Toys “R” Us sign to take up the same space as the old BowMac sign (which was only legal because it predated the current by-laws) The other part was, as the 1997 HRA report repeatedly states:
“To secure the repair, protection and on-going maintenance of the Bowmac sign for the duration of the Toys ‘R’ Us lease.”
Because it was big and it was there!
The city’s 1997 heritage revitalization agreement report briefly describes the history of the BowMac sign:
The Bowmac sign was constructed in 1958 on Broadway, which was Vancouver’s Auto Row at the time. A number of car dealers, notably the Dueck and Deely dealerships, had begun erecting a number of increasingly large signs to attract attention. The Bowmac dealership countered with a 29 m (80-foot) high orange sign illuminated with red neon and hundreds of flashing light bulbs. The background was repainted to the current red and blue colours. It was the tallest structure outside of Downtown and briefly, it was the largest freestanding sign in North America. When illuminated it could be seen as far as 18 miles away. Apparently, Jimmy Patterson was pleased with his first sign which prompted him to purchase the company that built it, Neon Products.
As for the Bowmac’s heritage value, the report cites:
“its colossal size; its extravagant use of 1950’s technology (i.e., over 1,200 incandescent light bulbs and extensive neon lighting); the characteristic 1950’s letter font; and the Las Vegas style marquee base with kinetic lighting.”
There is some highflown sentiment about the BowMac sign being a distinctive survivor of a time when Vancouver was justifiably referred to as the “neon capital of North America” but this ends with a down-to-earth declaration:
“It is a city landmark because of its size and its position on the West Broadway route.”
Interestingly, the report doesn’t describe a groundswell of support for the marriage between the Toys “R” Us and BowMac signs.
Of 287 surrounding neighbours who were notified as part of the sign review, only 19 cared enough to respond. Two were in support and 19 expressed objections—principally:
- Toys ‘R’ Us should conform to the Sign By-law as do other businesses;
- the sign will set a precedent for signs on Broadway;
- the sign is an earthquake hazard;
- the sign does not merit heritage status;
- if the sign is changed it will no longer merit its heritage status;
- and light and noise from the sign will greatly impact adjoining residential buildings.
Fortunately, in spite of the apathetic feedback, the City of Vancouver approved the HRA agreement and the site owner implemented it.
The HRA report describes the plan for the artful compromise that has preserved the BowMac sign as an artifact in place for the last 21 years:
“The sheet metal cladding of the vertical sign would be repaired and repainted to the colours existing today. The letters spelling out “BOW MAC” will be preserved, but not self-illuminated. The letters will be partially covered by a highly perforated 3/4 inch metal screen which will, in turn bear the Toys ‘R’ Us logo. The individual Toys ‘R’ Us letters would be in the corporate primary colours and be internally self-illuminated. Night lighting for the Bowmac letters would be provided by an even wash of front lighting.”
Toys "R" Us and the three white elephants
The building that Toy “R” Us occupies on West Broadway is a mammoth one-storey affair with likely a seven-metre-high ceiling and a parking lot on the roof. It was built in 1997 by Urbanex Development Corporation for the site’s owner, who, Urbanex President Bob Sinclair confirms, was not Toys “R” Us.
Sinclair could not say who the owner was in 1997 or who it is now but he did say that the construction of the building—including the unique overlapping of the Toys “R” Us lightbox sign over top of the old BowMac sign—presented no particular difficulties. It was a type of building that Urbanex had a lot of experience with.
Sinclair explained that his company was also responsible for two other nearby, large footprint, one-storey retail buildings with rooftop parking: the 1991 redevelopment of 310 West Broadway for Staples (now occupied by the No Frills supermarket) and the 1992 redevelopment of 130 West Broadway, for MEC, the fashionable outdoor gear co-op.
Sinclair did not disagree that these cavernous, single-storey buildings, with their rooftop parking, are no longer economically viable—not with land prices in Vancouver being as high as they are.
All three of these large and uncomplicated sites are ideal for redevelopment as mixed-use, multi-storey, residential/retail towers with underground parking.
On December 6, 2015, the one-storey MEC site at 130 West Broadway sold for $48 million. The property, which is now assessed at a whopping $70.4 million, will be redeveloped and MEC will soon be moving to a new, three-storey, mixed-use development with a 45,000-square-foot store, located at 2nd Avenue and Quebec Street, in the False Creek area.
Who can doubt that the one-storey property at 310 West Broadway—which is leased to a budget supermarket and currently assessed at a value $51.9 million—will also be redeveloped sooner rather than later.
The only question, I think, with the 1154-1174 West Broadway property occupied by Toys “R” Us (and assessed at $42.2 million) is that when the inevitable threat of redevelopment and demolition comes, will there be any neighbourhood interest and/or political will to find a new way to save the 60-year-BowMac sign for another 21 years?More