Philadelphia Metropolis


A Bold, Brazen Item

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Wall Wrap.jpgTo use a phrase favored by my nuns, Myron Berman is a bold, brazen item.

In 1999, Berman, a New York real estate guy and principal owner of an office building at 7th and Spring Garden Streets, had crews erect a 65-by-100 foot wall wrap on the facade facing a busy Vine Street Expressway off ramp.

The sign was illegal as hell.  Berman did not have a city permit to erect it. Its size was far outside the limits set by city law for non-accessory (read: advertising) signs. It was located near an off-ramp of an interstate, another no-no -- not only of city law but federal highway laws.

Much to Berman's regret, the sign caught the eye of Mary Tracy, redoubtable head of the anti-blight group SCRUB. The battle was joined.

Tracy alerted the city's Department of Licenses & Inspections. L&I ordered Berman to take it down. Berman applied for a permit to legalize the sign. L&I rejected it.  He appealed to the Zoning Board of Adjustment and the ZBA approved the sign on the basis that losing it would prove an economic hardship.  It was to laugh. The building -- noted by its Electric Factory water tower on the top -- was 70% to 80% occupied.

SCRUB appealed to Common Please Court. The judge overturned the ZBA agreement. Berman appealed that ruling to Commonwealth Court. He lost. He appealed it to the state Supreme Court.  He lost.  He appealed it to the U.S. Supreme Court.  He lost.  That was in 2003.

All the while, the sign remained up, generating thousands each month for Myron Berman and his real estate partners. I

In March 2004, the sign was still there -- five years after it was put up and nearly a year after the Supreme Court ruling. Berman had defied the city. He had defied the courts. He refused to take the sign down.

SCRUB went to the Commonwealth Court for relief. Judge Alan K. Silberstein ruled, in effect, that enough was enough. He ordered the sign taken down, fined the building's owner $65,000 and ordered that all future proceeds from the sign be put into a trust.

At long last, Berman took the sign down.

And then, one night in February 2005, he put up another sign. Same size, same location.

(I told you he was a bold, brazen item.)

This time the city acted quickly. It sent crews out, removed the sign, and gave Berman the bill.

What did Berman do? He applied for a new permit to erect a sign of the same dimensions in the same location. This time, referring to the multitude of court rulings against the sign, the Zoning Board rejected the application. Berman appealed. In July 2009, Common Pleas Court rejected Berman's appeal. No variance would be granted. The sign was illegal and could not be erected.

I am going to pause here to let your catch your breath. Ten years of fighting in the courts. Numerous hearings, filings, challenge over one outrageously huge, illegal sign.

But, wait, there's more.

In September of this year, Councilman Frank DiCicco introduced a bill in Council to allow a giant wall wrap on Berman's building on North 7th Street. Same place. Same dimensions.

What could have prompted DiCicco to introduce such a bill? DiCicco said that it was his belief that wall wraps and giant neon signs are aesthetically pleasing and add zip to city landscapes. He introduced another bill to allow giant signage along Market Street, for instance, because he said it would give off exciting vibes, ala Times Square in New York. (To me, putting giant billboards on East Market Street is like putting lipstick on a pig.)

Besides his aesthetic theories, there was another reason -- DiCicco has been a whore for the billboard industry for years and, as he is leaving office in January, this was his parting gift.

What would Council do with the bill that rewarded the illegal, outrageous, law-defying antics of Berman and company? Naturally, they passed it. In Philadelphia, whores travel in packs.

Fortunately, Mary Tracy was there to come to the rescue of us poor, chump citizens. She rallied the troops, getting them to urge Mayor Nutter to veto it. This week, he announced that he does plan a veto.

Nutter said he had heard from the state and was told that allowing the sign to go up could imperil federal highway money due to come to Philadelphia because it violated the federal highway beautification law. (The feds, it seems, do not subscribe to DiCicco's theories on the inherent beauty of billboards.)

Nutter said the bill constituted an egregious example of "spot zoning," passing a bill that allows one person to circumvent the city's zoning laws for a pet project. He also said the timing of the DiCicco bill was poor because Council had literally just passed a new zoning comprehensive code that was designed to discourage spot zoning.

A final piece of advice: I would step up night police patrols around the building on North 7th Street. You never know. Crews may be lurking in the grass, new wall wrap in hand, ready to make another midnight raid. After all, it's hard to keep a bold, brazen item down.

-- Tom Ferrick

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