Lit Bros. owner promises subway, other improvements, in exchange for large, digital sign

Lit Brothers concourse plan
Lit Brothers concourse plan

The owners of the historic Lit Brothers Building say they’ll upgrade the Ridge Avenue subway concourse as part of $10 million in public investments made in exchange for the right to erect a 14-foot tall digital sign atop the landmark at 701 Market Street.

Brickstone Realty cleared a significant milestone to placing its sign Tuesday, when the Philadelphia City Planning Commission approved the plan that is mandated to benefit public space. Spending $10 million on public investments is a requirement under the Market Street East Advertising District, the special zoning district that allows for large, digital signs advertising both uses on-site (accessory) and elsewhere (non-accessory). PCPC approval isn’t technically the only way forward, but it is in reality. The other option: A property owner can make all the improvements and then ask for permission to erect their sign.

City Council created the Market Street East Advertising District in 2011, hoping it would attract investment and stimulate improvement in the Market East corridor and liven up the street while directing digital format signs to a place council members believed could handle, and even benefit, from them. The PCPC recommended that council approve the legislation, but not everyone supported it. Critics included the anti-billboard Scenic Philadelphia – then known as SCRUB –  and the Preservation Alliance, which sought exclusion of some historic buildings from the advertising law, including Lit Brothers.

This is the first public investment plan submitted to the commission under the district, noted Commission Chairman and Deputy Mayor for Economic Development Alan Greenberger. “We’re putting our toe in the water on some 21st Century issues,” he said.

“It’s an exciting prospect to enliven Market Street,” PCPC Executive Director Gary Jastrzab said. He expects other investments-for-signs projects are not far off, though. The Philadelphia Inquirer has expressed interest, improvements in-the-works for The Gallery might include new signs, and there’s a potential, depending on the state gaming board’s decision, for a casino within the district, he said.

(Earlier this spring, City Council began exploring the creation of another digital district in Center City, as The Philadelphia Business Journal reported.)

Brickstone must post a $10 million bond to pay for the public investments, which will be split over two years, with about $7.5 million worth in year one and the balance in year two. The Ridge Avenue spur concourse improvements make up most of the second year improvements.

Greenberger described the Ridge Avenue councourse as OK, but more “subway-like.” Better lighting and an overall brightening of that space, so that it looks and feels more “elegant,” like the Lit Brothers area, would be a huge improvement, he said.

Year one includes the installation of better lighting at the 8th and Market subway entrance.

 All concourse improvements will require SEPTA approval, the commission noted. John Pringle of Stantec, the firm designing the sign, said the developer’s team was meeting with SEPTA Tuesday afternoon.

Also under the approved “public improvement program,” Brickstone would make upgrades to the public restrooms within the Lit Building, and light up the historic features of the building’s facade. It would improve adjacent sidewalks, replace and widen escalators that take visitors from concourse to ground level in the buidling,  and add awnings, bike racks on Filbert Street and video displays in several areas, said John Pringle of Stantec.

“This  robust, cast iron facade –  it’s going to be a pleasure to light this, and really highlight the features of this historic building,” Pringle said in his presentation.

The public investment piece isn’t the only requirement of the Market Street East Advertising District. It requires that no sign pose a safety hazard to drivers, and Jastrzab said staff was convinced this one wouldn’t by traffic studies submitted by the developer.  It also requires that no sign take away from the historic nature of a structure on which it is placed. Jastrzab said staff felt that requirement has been satisfied, since the sign already got the approval of the Philadelphia Historical Commission in November 2012.

The structure of the rooftop sign is set to run 75 feet along the 8th Street and 7th Street facades and 81 feet along Market, but the digital display area is smaller, and focused on the corners of 8th and Market and 7th and Market.

The rendering shown to the PCPC depicted a dark metal structure with the words Lit Brothers on it that strongly resembled the signs that sat atop the building in both 1898 and 1984.

But the descriptions given by Jastrzab and Pringle said it was both digital and changeable. The discrepancy prompted Commissioner Nancy Rogo Trainer to ask for more details. “Everything shown as mesh could be different colors?” she asked Pringle.

“It will be similar to Madison Square Gardens in Manhattan,” Pringle said. “It will be an active sign, multi-color and video-like.”

Pringle said the intent is to use the sign as much as possible for advertising – his client has hired a media company to rent the sign. When it is not rented, it could be used by building tenants, or for public service announcements. If the Phillies are in the World Series, Pringle said, the game could be watched on those big screens.

After the meeting, Jastrzab said the structure of the sign and the words “Lit Brothers” were clearly inspired by historic precident. The new district allows for the modern, digital component that wasn’t possible back then.

Trainer also asked about the $10 million pubic improvement list. She called the concourse investments desperately needed and long overdue. But Trainer was less enthusiastic about the video display screens in some windows, asking how they were considered public improvements when they can be used for advertising.

Jastrzab said they could also be used for public service announcements and directional signs. Pringle said the plan was to make some of them interactive, historical displays where passers-by might hear from “George Washington.”

Jastrzab said planning staff worked with the development team for months to hone the public improvements list. Greenberger said the development team asked for some things that planning shot down because they were routine building maintenance, not public improvements.

He said there might be some debate about some of the list, but “the vast majority of it” is clearly public investment.

Trainer and Commission Vice Chairman Joe Syrnick voted against approving the list.

After the meeting, Pringle said his client still needs to obtain a building permit for the sign. He anticipated it would be about six months before it was finished.

Jastrzab said Brickstone would also need to make a submission to L&I, but anticipated permits would be given by right since the requirements of the overlay have been met. Brickstone will need Historic Commission approval to light up the building facade, he said.

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