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Trawling for Cash

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Myron Berman may be about to realize a decades-long dream of putting a giant wall wrap on the office building he owns on North 7th Street, just north of Callowhill Street.

Council has passed a bill letting Berman erect a seven-story high, illuminated billboard across the southern face of his building.  The bill is on Mayor Nutter's desk.

It's a sweet deal for Berman and for a few select schools.  As part of the deal to let him put up the billboard -- in violation of city, state and federal law -- Berman has promised to donate a share of the profits to the home and school associations of three nearby elementary schools. News reports say the deal could amount to $125,000 per school each year.  (I seriously doubt it, but that's what the papers say.)

Can anyone think of any reason why we shouldn't all support this win-win situation for our cash-strapped schools?

I can think of five reasons.

Reason No. 1.

Berman is a renegade building owner who has repeatedly flouted the law dealing with billboards on his property.  He first erected a giant wall wrap in 1999 -- without a single permit or city approval -- and then he fought in the courts for four years to keep it up.  The city opposed it on three grounds: 

It was way too big and violated code on maximum size allowed for billboards; it was located in a state-federal highway corridor (the Vine Street expressway is nearby), and billboards are forbidden along those rights of way; he failed to go through the zoning appeal process.  Eventually, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against Berman.  The city told him to take the wrap down.  He refused. Finally, after a judge slapped on fines, the sign came down in 2004.

Then, one night in 2005, Berman had crews put up a new sign -- in the middle of the night, again a completely illegal action (the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled against him for Chrissakes!).  This time the city acted.  Instead of going to court -- so Berman could keep the sign up and ignore the various court orders -- it had crews remove the sign.

But, Berman persisted.  He got Councilman Frank DiCicco to introduce a bill in 2011 to allow the sign. It passed.  Mayor Nutter vetoed it. 

This year, Berman got Councilman Mark Squilla to introduce the same bill, with the money for the schools added a sweetener.  It passed Council again. 

Why are we rewarding serial law violators with a sweetheart deal? What's next?  A Liberty Medal for Gary Heidnik? Maybe the Philadelphia award (posthumously) for Sam Rappaport, the notorious scummy slum Center City landlord?

 

Reason No. 2

It is spot zoning at its worst.  Ever wonder why you are not allowed to add five stories to your three-story rowhouse? Because the zoning code is designed to (a) protect such things as street fabric, building density and heights in the name of having a livable city; (b) impose a degree of uniformity upon all classes of owners. A lack of uniformity equals a lack of fairness, whereby we operate under two sets of rules -- one for chumps like you and me and one for connected folks like Berman.   If Berman can get a bill passed to allow him to have a wall wrap, why can't I put a large billboard on the roof of my home?

In fact, why can't I -- taking a page from Berman's book -- put one up next week and then dare the city to catch me if they can? Here's an idea: Why don't we all do it? 

 

Reason No. 3

It violates state and federal law regarding placement of billboards on the right of way on federal highways.  The Vine Street expressway is a federal highway.  It was in 2011 when the DiCicco bill was passed.  It is today.  State officials have written Council saying that allowing erection of this illuminated wall wrap could imperil the city's chance of getting state and federal highway funds.  And we are going to go through this just to make Myron Berman happy?  Frankly, I'd rather he be sad than lose millions for road and bridge repair. No offense intended to Mr. Berman, of course.

 

Reason No. 4

It benefits the few at the expense of many. Three elementary schools are near this desirable location and therefore will benefit from erection of the sign -- in effect getting a cut of the profits.  But what about the other 261 public schools?  Of course, it sets the precedent of tit-for-tat for institutions that want to get in on their own deals.  Need money for a pet project?  Get a billboard company to come in, give you a cut of its profits, and let it erect a billboard on or near your property.  There are lots of areas of the city where billboards are now forbidden that could be prime locations.  How about a billboard in the parking lot of St. Peter's School in Society Hill?  Or atop Roman Catholic High School at Broad and Vine? Or a wall wrap around the facade of South Philadelphia High? That kind of signage is currently forbidden in those locations, but why not follow the Berman precedent and allow them to cash in, too?

Here's an alternative: If Council wants to help the schools, why not pass a bill that increases the billboard tax from seven percent to 10 percent of rental fees.  It would bring in about $1.5 million in additional revenue.  We could split the additional money equally among all public schools -- giving them about $65,000 each for home-and-school purposes.

 

Reason No. 5

It undermines the public's faith in city government, particularly City Council.  It makes this legislative body look cheap and tawdry. It sets up a "For Sale" sign for special interests who want what they want and city law and regulations be damned.  Just sweeten the pot with some money for a "good cause," and watch Council go down for it.

Of course, Council argues they are doing it for the kids, that it is a harmless exception to city law in the name of helping underfunded schools. I fear it is the first of many such deals that will be floating through Council, with the cumulative effect of shredding zoning and other regulations.

Here's an alternative idea:  If the schools are underfunded, why not give them more city money? Why not juice up the property tax rate a bit and deliver the extra millions to the district? Why not tax sugary drinks?  Why not institute citywide trash fees based on weight to spur recycling? If the schools are in dire straits, why not address the issue as responsible lawmakers instead of like....

Please feel free to fill in the blank.

-- Tom Ferrick 

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