Digital billboards on East Market approved by Planning Commission

Here’s something you may know: the area of Market Street between Broad and 7th streets was designated as a special advertising district a few years ago, permitting developers to place large digital billboards on their buildings in exchange for a substantial investment in public improvements worth at least $10 million.

The motivation of the ordinance was to give developers an incentive build good buildings on an underutilized corridor in the heart of the city, by providing an extra income stream through advertising, and to get some public benefits in return.

But the “public improvements” part of the ordinance is a little bit looser than you—and I’m projecting my own ignorance onto you, here—may have guessed.

At its meeting on Tuesday, the Planning Commission approved a “Public Improvement Plan” to accompany the placement of digital advertisements on the new building that will span the block of Market Street between 11th and 12th streets, replacing the low-slung retail center owned by the estate of Stephen Girard. As part of that project, a 17-story apartment complex with retail stores and restaurants on the ground floor, developers will place eight separate digital billboards facing Market Street and wrapping around onto the corners of 11th and 12th, as well as onto an internal walkway to be known as Chestnut Walk. The signs will be between 455 square feet and 1,600 square feet, and they’ll be placed at 30 feet to 37 feet above the sidewalk.

In exchange, the developers said they’d be investing more than $14 million in materials and soft costs for the building: precast concrete, masonry, metals, aluminum and glass, plus design, management, and things of that nature.

What makes those materials a public improvement? one Commissioner asked.

Alan Greenberger, the Commission chairman and Deputy Mayor for Economic Development, said that the ordinance was “specifically structured to make an incentive for development.”

So, asked Commissioner Nancy Rogo-Trainer, as long as there’s an investment of $10 million or more in any type of materials, regardless of quality, that counts as a public improvement?

Right, said Greenberger. (See a more detailed description of what qualifies for public improvements here.)

According to the zoning code, in order for the developer to qualify for permission to place digital signs, the investment “must materially improve the facade (including, but not limited to, facade lighting) or publicly accessible exterior of the property …” For older buildings, that could mean substantial improvements to ugly or crumbling facades.

But for new buildings, apparently, it means any development at all. The public benefits come in the form of new jobs and tax revenue, Greenberger said.

Which is not to knock the East Market project. The design generally got high marks earlier this month from the Civic Design Review Committee, and the building it’s replacing—which is all of three stories tall—would certainly be considered an underuse of a property zoned CMX-5, the most permissive commercial classification in the city.

The Planning Commission previously approved a digital sign for the Lit Bros. building at 8th and Market. The Public Improvement Plan for that project will involve upgrades to the Ridge Avenue subway concourse.

View the full video of the hearing below.

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