City hits pause on digital billboard proposed for land abutting Fairmount Park

Opponents have stymied a plan to put a digital billboard next to Fairmount Park, putting the controversial treeline addition on hold.

The double-sided billboard would have overlooked the Schuylkill Expressway, according to legislation introduced by City Councilman Curtis Jones on May 11 and put on hold on Wednesday by the Council’s Rules Committee.

Former Mayor Bill Green, who attended the committee hearing,  appeared to convince Jones that the legislation isn’t ready for prime time.

“My old boss Bill Green is here,” said Jones, after announcing that the bill would be put on hold. “And he took me to the woodshed.”

The legislation, opposed by the Fairmount Park Conservancy, the Philadelphia Parks Alliance and other critics including the advocacy group Scenic Philadelphia, is part of a proposal to find a new home for a sign that blocked the views of Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP) employees. The previous signage was located at the foot of the South Street bridge and obstructed the view from the cafeteria of the new Roberts Center for Pediatric Research on the east side of the river.“So the billboard company and CHOP worked with the city to find a suitable location, and they found one in our district.,” said Josh Cohen, chief of staff to Councilman Curtis Jones, in an interview last week.

Jones and his staff have played down the visual impact of the billboard.  The long strip of land they propose to remap from open space to industrial is wedged between the Schuylkill Expressway and the CSX train line’s right-of-way. Jones’s office says the area is zoned incorrectly and he is merely trying to fix that error.

“You cannot see the billboard from any part of the park unless you count the expressway as being in the middle of the park, which it sort of is,” said Cohen.  “But if you are in Belmont Plateau or any other part of the park my understanding is that you cannot see it.”

Nonetheless, the proposal faces substantial pushback.  At its May meeting, the City Planning Commission recommended in a non-binding resolution that Council vote against the bill. The executive director of Scenic Philadelphia, Mary Tracey, attended the hearing with a couple dozen supporters to oppose Jones’s effort. An online petition begun that she started in opposition to the measure has gathered 1,548 signatures.

“Today, you are presented with an amendment that would exempt a billboard company from having to comply with Philadelphia’s law that prohibits billboards within 660 feet of a park and within a national historic park,” wrote Tracey in testimony prepared for the canceled hearing. “I respectfully ask that members of this committee continue to uphold the longstanding protections against billboards in or near our parks.”

Jones told reporters last Thursday that Outfront Media is willing to ease bitterness about advertising affecting Fairmount Park by entering into a community benefits agreement with Bill Pickett Riding Academy, which is the institution that is the closest spatially to the site of the proposed billboard. Jones’ speculated that the funds could be used to pay for a horseback town watch initiative. (Disclosure: Outfront Media is one of WHYY’s marketing vendors.)

“Outfront Media said they were willing to do whatever they needed to do to benefit the community,” said Jones’s legislative counsel, Samantha Williams, last week.

Neither Jones, his staff, or the billboard company could provide an estimate of how much the community benefits agreement could be expected to pull in for the stables.

But now the fate of both the community benefits agreement and the bill itself is unclear. Asked after the hearing what the councilman plans to do next, both Williams and Cohen said they had no comment.

“The bill is held,” said Cohen.

Correction: The land proposed for the billboard is zoned for parks and open space but it is outside the boundaries of the city-owned Fairmount Park.


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