Seeing the light in Center City

CCD South Broad light show in Nov. 2007

Nov. 05

By Kellie Patrick Gates
For PlanPhilly

The legislation that would allow Foxwoods to operate at The Gallery would also allow the casino to advertise itself with rooftop signs, revolving signs, electronic signs or flashing signs.

Critics, including Mary Tracy, executive director of The Society Created to Reduce Urban Blight, or SCRUB, worry that the larger signs would visually damage the heart of Philadelphia.

But others, including Center City District Executive Director Paul Levy, believe the loosening of signage rules would not only cause no harm at The Gallery, but would be beneficial to creating a vibrant night-life along Market East.

Legislation that would create a Commercial Entertainment District classification that can be used in the Market East corridor and affix the CED designation to the area between 11th and Filbert, 10th and Market has passed Planning Commission muster and was sent to full Council by the Committee on Rules after a Saturday public hearing. The legislation unanimously passed out of committee today and was read into the record. Council will take a final vote on the matter next Thursday.

The Market East corridor CED legislation is actually an amendment to the city’s existing CED zoning designation. The current CED can be used anywhere in the city, but was written to reflect the large parcels and relatively open spaces that characterized the other proposed casino sites, including SugarHouse’s Delaware Avenue location and Foxwoods’ Columbus and Reed site.

After Foxwoods announced, in the face of pressure from neighborhood groups and elected officials, that it would consider moving to The Gallery, Councilman Frank DiCicco’s office began working on an amended CED that would better meet the circumstances of that site, city officials and DiCicco spokesman Brian Abernathy have said. Some changes were made to the signage portion – no stand-alone signs would be allowed, for example. And both the Art Commission and the Planning Commission will have to review any sign proposals, Abernathy said.

But some parts of the original CED legislation would still apply, including those allowing larger, flashier signs.

Tracy, of SCRUB, fears that the prospective changes to the kinds of signage allowed on Market Street has gotten lost within the passionate exchange over whether a casino should be allowed to operate on Market East – an issue her organization has no position on. Although the current legislation would change the zoning to CED only at The Gallery site, the designation could be applied to other properties within 6th to Broad, Chestnut to Arch – with further legislation, public hearings, and a plan of development approved by the Planning Commission and City Council.

“I’m appalled by what this particular CED zone would bring into the heart of our city,” she said.

“It’s one thing to talk about whether putting in Foxwoods is a good idea in The Gallery, but to flip that into not only allowing an incredible amount of signage, but electronic, flashing revolving, rooftop signs … We need to step back and see what that means.”

Abernathy said that the regulations would be loosened under the proposal, but he also said current requirements along the corridor “perhaps are out of date.”

Abernathy said that anyone with concerns could have brought them to the public hearing held last Saturday. Tracy did speak at that meeting.

“I think the city as a whole is taking a look at their signage policy,” he said. “There is already movement about making changes on Market Street.”

Abernathy would not say who within the city was having such discussions.

But Levy, of the Center City District, said his organization and some business owners along the corridor are talking about it. He thinks changes should be made to allow bigger and more noticeable signage whether or not Foxwoods comes to The Gallery.

“I’m very comfortable with the notion that more expressive, more illuminated signs suggest that this is an entertainment district, this is a nightlife district,” he said.

He said he agrees with many of the Tracy’s views on signage – for example, that there should not be billboards blocking the views as people come into the city. But zoning is about setting different development rules for different areas, he said, and Levy is completely fine with the signage proposal as it relates to The Gallery. “Look at The Gallery today. It’s a blank wall by day, and un-illuminated at night,” he said.

The City should not expand looser signage regulations to the entire Market East corridor without standards everyone agrees to, he said. “It’s not Times Square, and I wouldn’t recommend that, but something that signifies this is a great place for entertainment, a good place for dinner, and liveliness.”

Levy said historic buildings and view corridors also must be respected, and a buffer around the Liberty Bell would be a good idea.

Tracy said the time to have the discussion about signage for the entire corridor – and what its limits should be – should be part of the CED legislation. “How much of a presence do we allow them to have in the gateway to our historic areas? In residential areas? I don’t think it’s been examined in any way by our City Council and the Planning Commission and that is a huge disappointment….they just put their stamp of approval on it and sent it over to City Council without a squeak about signage.”

Deputy Mayor for planning Andy Altman did not return a call for comment Tuesday.

City Council cannot vote on the zoning legislation at Thursday’s meeting. The soonest it could, according to its rules, would be at next Thursday’s meeting.

The city expects that sometime after the CED zoning exists, Foxwoods will submit a plan of development. There would be public hearings on that plan, with promises of one before it is finalized. The Planning Commission and City Council would have to approve it in order for Foxwoods to move forward and in order for the CED designation to be mapped onto The Gallery site.

Contact the reporter at kelliespatrick@gmail.com

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

It will take 126,000 members this year for great news and programs to thrive. Help us get to 100% of the goal.