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Billboard City: Part Two

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By Ryan W. Briggs

Steen Outdoor Advertising was able to get an over-the-counter L&I permit to convert a billboard outside Peter Kendierski's loft because Philadelphia's current zoning code, while strictly regulating neon lights and marquees, actually predates the invention of digital displays.  Other companies have rushed to convert signs in the past year, hoping to slip permitting past neighbor's groups while the approval process is still as easy as waiting in line at L&I. 

To say that Philadelphia's zoning code is outdated is an understatement.  The City has been working for literally years on modernizing and fundamentally restructuring a document that saw it's last major revision about the same time that Barry Goldwater was announcing a bid to unseat Lyndon Johnson.

A new zoning code is on track for adoption by Council later this year. Perhaps an indication of how contentious the signage matter has become is that Council has scheduled separate hearings on the portion of the new zoning code that would effectRobbins Billboard.jpg signs.  The first public hearings will be today [June 12th] and since Council will soon recess for the summer this will delay passage of the entire new code in Council until at least this Fall.

Members of the Zoning Reform Commission, say the new code will theoretically bring digital signage into fold and include incentives for advertising companies to permanently remove old and outdated billboards. For every old sign removed, a billboard company would get credits that can be accumulated to get a new board in a new -- and more desirable -- location.

Sounds great - in theory. But Mary Tracy, longtime opponent of the outdoor advertising industry and head of Scenic Philadelphia, fears that a new "credit system" for dealing with billboards will only lead to the creation of new, more obtrusive billboards in prominent locations. She believes outdoor advertisers are already exerting influence over the zoning reform process.

"We're seeing definite language that would have come from them," said Tracy."This whole credit system, we call the "rope-a-dope" credit program, is definitely an industry-wide technique they've used across the country."

Tracy says she uses the term "rope-a-dope" because she believes that billboard owners  will use the credit program to get rid of their least valuable and most tenuously legal signs, some that are no longer even updated, in order to trade in credits for brand new digital signs in more visible, and therefore profitable, locations.

Eva Gladstein, Executive Director of the Philadelphia Zoning Code Commission, says that the new code is simply trying to facilitate the removal of the billboards that citizens - and Scenic Philadelphia - have cited as the biggest nuisances.  Specifically, those that dot Philadelphia's arterial streets, covering building facades and rooftops, and generally being out of scale with the average rowhome neighborhood.

"We've created a system where you provide a greater incentive to remove signs from those same neighborhoods where Scenic Philadelphia has been very critical of having signs," said Gladstein.

"The current zoning code has a 1 to 1 replacement ratio, so to put up one new sign, you have to take down one sign. Now, you'll get more credit for removing a sign from a neighborhood corridor than, say, I-95, and likewise you will need more credit to put up a digital sign than a non-digital sign," she added, reiterating the importance of the new code's regulation of digital displays on billboards.

Digital BillBoards.jpg"It is for the first time treating digital signs differently than regular signs," said Gladstein.

However, Tracy questions why the city would even allow digital billboards in the new zoning code at all, saying, "Why are we even going digital?  Who wants that?  If you asked a dozen people would they want digital signs they can see miles away, do you think they would want that or a regular billboard?"

Tracy points to neighborhood groups and individuals fighting digital conversion - like Kendierski - as proof that citizens have little interest in seeing more digital signage.

Gladstein says the Commission has to balance the interests of all parties involved.  "There was an internal working group of a number of different city agencies and stakeholders that deal with zoning and signage - from small businesses to the people who manufacture signs to civic associations and people who own and manage outdoor advertising companies - so many different points of view and we had to be fair to all those various points of view," she said.

"In general this new chapter of the zoning code would depress the amount of signage that is permitted as opposed the old zoning code.  In pretty much every zoning district, across the board, the amount of signage that would be permitted is less," added Gladstein.

Tracy remains skeptical.  She believes that even if the overall number of signs doesn't increase, the present draft will allow advertisers to shift signage and increase billboard density on Philadelphia's more heavily trafficked corridors, something that is impossible currently due to restrictions on how billboards can be spaced and placed.

Tracy said that pushing more billboards onto the City's highways was still unacceptable, even if it did facilitate the removal of neighborhood signs. "When you come through our gateways, down I-95 and 76, it's an embarrassment.  We have beautiful, majestic views of our skyline and yet we allow hundreds of signs to block that, I mean we're talking about signs that are sometimes 100 feet high.  I've drivenYour Ad Here.jpg down highways from Vermont to South Carolina many, many times, and when I come into a city I count the signs.  I think we have the most on the East Coast, even more than New York on I-95."

The new Zoning is still just a draft, and nothing is set in stone - yet. For now, Scenic Philadelphia is on guard for subtle changes in each draft. Tracy noted that her group was still sifting through the language of the last draft for possible loopholes.  Scenic Philadelphia and associated community groups have already shot down earlier iterations of the bill for giving too much leeway for billboard expansion, and their is still room for change in the coming months.

"I don't know exactly how much influence [advertisers] are exerting, but, I think the sign industry always wants more. They've already said publicly they want new areas they can put signs and a new definition of how they can place signs," said Tracy.

With the first zoning hearings set to begin, the future of advertising in Philadelphia's public spaces will be determined, with citizen activists and the industry at opposite ends of the table.

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