Digital signs a big part of the discussion at second sign controls meeting

Note: This article contains a clarification. Some readers took Councilman Bill Green aide Stacey Graham’s statement on the number of billboards that should come down in order for a digital billboard to go up literally. She was using hyperbole. On Thursday, Graham said Green does not at this time have a specific ratio in mind.

Much of a Tuesday morning planning commission discussion about future sign controls in Philadelphia’s new zoning code centered on digital signs –  a rapidly evolving technology that participants said might not fit as neatly into the city’s rules for the road as more old-school models do.

For example: Signs are generally either accessory, meaning they are related to an on-site use, or non-accessory, meaning they advertise something not on site.

But a single digital sign can switch between accessory, non-accessory, and a public service announcement or information related to a use on site, said Stephen W.W. Ching Jr., an attorney whose clients include developers and outdoor advertising firms. Sometimes, multiple uses can can even happen on the same screen – think of SEPTA screens that give train information but also have an ad for Temple  University at the top.

Architect Robin J. Kohles, a project associate at the Community Design Collaborative, said she knows of a case where an attorney with a digital display is selling space to other, off-site businesses to help pay for his sign.

The discussion was one in a series of civic engagement meetings hosted by the Planning Commission in conjunction with other agencies – Tuesday’s was co-sponsored by the Greater Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce. The new zoning code passed by city council last fall does not include updated sign control regulations. Sign controls from the old code were reorganized into a single chapter, but remained substantively the same. These preliminary discussions with stakeholders and other public comment will help the planning commission craft new sign controls, which planning hopes to get to City Council in May, said Eva Gladstein, who led the zoning code process. This invite-only session was for small business owners and sign manufacturers.

Gladstein said at the onset that current sign rules are unclear at times, and even contradictory. The point of all the feedback is to help make things better in the new guidelines, she said.

The accessory/non-accessory classification is important in current sign regulations because non-accessory signs are not permitted by-right in some zoning classifications.

Discussion facilitator Beverly A. Harper brought up a well-known and sometimes contentious non-accessory accessory sign issue. Billboards are most often non-accessory signs, and a new one can be put up only if an old one comes down. “Is this a good standard?” Harper asked. Or should two billboards, or four, have to go to make way for a new one?

Ching said the current standard is good. “Anything more than 1 to 1 would result in dispute and controversy,” he said. Stacey Graham, legislative counsel to City Councilman-at-Large Bill Green, said, with hyperbole, that she’d like to see 10 billboards go for each new one.  John Nolan of Aztec Signs and Graphics said the standard is good for the flat billboards, but “I’d like to see two-for-one for digital displays.”  Since these signs can display 12 messages a minute, each one is really the equivalent of 12 billboards, he said.

Joseph McInnis, owner of Speedpro Imaging, said the two-for-one digital swap made sense to him, too.

Jonathan Snyder, who works in the city commerce department and is on the zoning code’s signage working group, said he is concerned about any new digital billboards for environmental and safety reasons. He said they distract him when he is driving, particularly at night, and they require a lot of power to keep from overheating.

McInnis said digital signs will be seen more and more, like it or not. He doesn’t make them, he said, but he knows changing the messages on them, which can be done electronically, is much cheaper than paying someone to swap out an old image.  It makes more sense to create smart regulations, he said.

Although Harper made it clear no consensus had to be reached, most participants seemed to agree that brightness standards for digital signs were important. Ching said safety issues are very important to outdoor advertisers.

Nolan and commercial, business and corporate attorney Glenn Romano, a sign committee member, said those writing the new sign rules needed to consider the many kinds of electronic signs. How would advertising images that project onto buildings or sidewalks be governed? And what about those digital displays with sound perched atop gas pumps?

Digital signs weren’t the only type of signage raising questions.

McInnis asked the sign committee and planners to think about banners and flags. They can be displayed in many different ways,  he said, so are they flat-wall, or angled wall?  And are they temporary – even when some businesses leave them up for a long time?

Nolan suggested the definition for revolving signs be expanded to include any kind of mechanization, not just signs that spin.

Participants were asked to consider the square-footage limit for store-front signage along neighborhood “Main Street” commercial corridors. Currently, six square feet per linear foot of storefront is allowed, to a maximum of 120 square feet. The option that got the most votes was reducing this to four square feet per linear foot, to a maximum of 80 square feet. The least popular option was upping it to eight square feet.

Nolan suggested it was better to err with a smaller amount and allow variances for more signage.

Kohles asked the people in the signage business whether their customers came in asking for signs that maxed out their sign allotment, or whether they held back to allow for future possible needs, or, just to achieve a certain look.

The sign guys said it depends on where the business is.

Nolan said his Center City customers tend to go smaller. A request for a wall plaque on Walnut Street doesn’t surprise him, for example. Such a request would be unheard of along Aramingo Avenue. “They want the biggest and brightest,” he said. “They want to know, ‘Can you make mine bigger and brighter than his over there?”

This, said awning manufacturer Jeff Kleger of Jefco Manufacturing, is why considering the context of the neighborhood is critical. He and several others indicated it made better sense to have contextual standards that are specific to different parts of the city.

Two more invitation-only sessions remain, one for representatives of civic associations and another for community development corporations and corridor managers. On Feb. 17, the same type of session will be open to all participants. However, registration is necessary and space is limited. To register, go to the Zoning Matters website, and use the “contact us” button. Anyone may also take the signage survey on the website, and input from all will also be taken when the first draft of the sign rules are presented in an information-only session to the Philadelphia City Planning Commission board on Feb. 21.

A second draft will go to the planning commission at its April meeting.

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