Bill that would allow condemned I-95 billboards to be rebuilt without zoning oversight is on hold

A bill that would allow the owners of standard billboards – condemned to make way for I-95 – to replace them with flashier, digital models has stalled.

And it might not ever be revived.

The I-95 Condemnation Corridor bill would allow the billboards or other businesses to be rebuilt anywhere within 300 feet of their original location and 200 feet of either side of the new highway.

The bill states its purpose is to prevent the loss of jobs and tax revenues that would result if these billboards and businesses are not rebuilt. It was first introduced by First District Councilman Frank DiCicco in September, then reintroduced with a new bill number and minor text changes by DiCicco and at-large Councilwoman Blondell Reynolds Brown in October

But DiCicco did not write the first version of the bill. It originated with Terry Steen, president of Steen Outdoor Advertising, a local leader in the billboard business. 

The corridor defined in the bill stretches from Rhawn Street to Arch Street and is mostly outside DiCicco’s district, and inside that of Sixth District Councilwoman Joan Krajewski. It is Krajewski who may derail the proposal.

Steen tried to get her to introduce the bill before he approached DiCicco.  He contacted Krajewski’s office by phone in early August, then later emailed his version of the bill to her chief of staff, Chris Creelman. Creelman said Krajewski could not determine whether to support the bill without first getting the input of the city’s planning and legal departments. While that was happening, Steen convinced DiCicco to introduce the bill.

DiCicco legislative aide Sean McMonagle said in September that his boss wasn’t certain what repercussions the bill might have, or whether he would even support it down the road, but he introduced it to get the discussion started. This week, McMonagle said DiCicco still isn’t certain he would support the bill. He is waiting to hear back from various city staffers what ramifications the bill might have, McMonagle said. Particularly, he wants to hear from the office of Rina Cutler, deputy mayor of transportation and utilities, about whether the bill could put federal highway funding in jeopardy.

The Philadelphia City Planning Commission has since voted twice to give itself more time for planning staff, as well as staff from the city’s legal and streets departments, to research the ramifications of the bill.

Krajewski, however, has already determined it’s a bad idea.

“Almost every civic group in our district has contacted us opposed to this,” Creelman said. “That’s reason enough for her.”

View Steen billboards locations in a larger map
Creelman confirmed that Krajewski has told DiCicco’s office that if the current bill is ever voted out of committee, she will propose an amendment that would exclude all of the land in her district, which stretches from Allegheny Avenue north to the Montgomery County line.

“The majority is in our district, and the bill was introduced against our better judgment,” Creelman said.

Creelman said there is no way Krajewski can support the bill without significant changes. “You would have to gut the bill and start all over at the beginning,” he said.

If a Krajewski amendment were introduced and adopted, McMonagle said, the bill would be dead.

McMonagle said that at a recent meeting held with representatives of the planning and legal departments and the administration last week, DiCicco said that if Krajewski’s district were removed, the ordinance would only apply to three or four billboards. DiCicco told those at the discussion that at that point, it wouldn’t make sense to pursue the legislation at all.

The bill was originally set to be considered by the rules committee Monday, but it was pulled from the agenda.

Creelman said he believed the pulling of the bill was in response to his boss’s position. But prior to the rules committee meeting, DiCicco said he pulled the bill because he wanted to give the planning commission time to get its concerns addressed.

McMonagle said his boss had already determined to pull the ordinance prior to hearing from Krajewski. He noted that neither he nor the councilman have received a written amendment from Krajewski.

DiCicco said that with the additional time planning asked for and the need to schedule and advertise a hearing, there is really no way the bill could be back in front of the rules committee before its upcoming recess.

City planners have had big concerns from the beginning. At its mid-November meeting, at which commissioners voted for a second 45-day extension so staff could collect more information, city planner Paula Brumbelow told commissioners that staff was still investigating whether the zoning proposal would allow any of the 32 billboards that would need to be relocated for the I-95 project to move into a residential area. The majority of the billboards are now located on the east side of I-95, which is mostly zoned industrial. But the bill would allow owners to switch to the west side of the highway, which is mostly residential, provided they meet the other conditions of the bill.

The streets and legal departments are looking into the concern that passing the bill could could lead PennDOT to take away the city’s power to regulate billboards on the highway, or result in the loss of federal funding, Brumbelow said. The bill says that in order to be eligible for relocation, a billboard or structure must be currently legal. The city’s department of licenses and inspections is now looking into the legal status of each of the billboards, she said.

A second billboard-related bill introduced by DiCicco and Councilman-at-Large Jim Kenney was also pulled from the rules committee’s Monday agenda. This one would create a commercial advertising district on East Market Street, between 7th and 13th Street. The bill would allow signs to be animated, to wrap around building corners, to be illuminated from within or by shining light on them (from sundown until 3 a.m.).

DiCicco said this bill was pulled to address concerns related to protecting the historic structures on this part of Market Street, such as the Strawbridge building.  But “I would like to get this one done before break,” he said.

DiCicco believes the bill could really help a struggling part of town. The signage “would make it very bright and attractive,” he said, and could turn it into a place where people would actually want to go at 9 p.m. Right now, “after 6, it’s a dead zone,” he said.

DiCicco said he’s been working with the Pennsylvania Real Estate Investment Trust (PREIT), the owners of The Gallery, who have a plan to revamp their property. The kind of high-end retailers PREIT aims to attract need to promote themselves, DiCicco said.

But, he said, non-accessory signs – those that advertise a business that is not on-site – could also be allowed in some situations. The bill requires that half of the revenue the sign generates in its first year be used to improve the interior or exterior of a building in the advertising district. 

The Market East advertising district bill was also considered at this month’s planning commission meeting, and the commission voted for more time for staff to review this one, too. City planner Martin Gregorski told the commission, “I couldn’t go three sentences without pulling out something we had a problem with.” Gregorski said the commission “needs to decide if this is a good idea, and if it is a good idea, how do we go about it.”

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