Planning supports creation of commercial advertising district to glitz up and fix up Market Street East

A proposal to encourage the redevelopment of a glitzier East Market Street by offering developers the option of having large-format, digital signs on buildings to which they make $10 million improvements has the approval of the Philadelphia City Planning Commission.

But commissioners Beth Miller and Joe Syrnick voted against the proposal after the failure of an amendment that would have only given PCPC support to the legislation if four buildings on the Philadelphia Historic Register were exempted and two blocks of Market Street were cut out of the special commercial advertising district.

The Market Street Commercial Advertising District would extend along Market Street from 7th to 13th streets if the legislation sponsored by First District Councilman Frank DiCicco and Councilman-at-Large James Kenney passes city council.

Usually, a bill is not voted out of committee until the planning commission weighs in on it. But with council’s session winding down, the Rules Committee held a hearing last week and voted it out of committee. Planning Commission Chairman Alan Greenberger told the rest of the commission he spoke in favor of the proposal at the hearing, but not as a commissioner. He was wearing his other hat – deputy mayor for planning and development.

Full council is expected to vote on it Thursday, and they will have the planning commission’s approval of the matter when they do so.

DiCicco has called the legislation a tool to encourage development in a part of Center City that “roles up its sidewalks after five.”

Greenberger called the proposal a development tool when describing it to the commission. Other cities have commercial advertising districts, where larger, brighter signs are allowed in efforts to bring light and action to the area. But Greenberger said he knew of no other city that has the requirement that the building the sign goes on be improved before the sign can go up.

When the bill was first proposed, city planners had problems with the language in the bill and the commission voted not to support it. But planners liked the concept. Changes made since have satisfied planning staff and administration, but some neighborhood groups, the SCRUB anti-blight organization, and the Preservation Alliance remain troubled by the proposal.

Preservation Alliance Executive Director John Gallery urged the commission to exempt buildings on Philadelphia’s Historic Register from the proposal – these would be Lit Brothers, Strawbridge and Clothier, the Reading Terminal Market Headhouse and the PSFS building. Gallery showed a photo of the Lit Brothers building with large signs on top of it and a building wrap with a woman’s face on the facade. All of this, he said, would be allowed under the proposed legislation.

Most commissioners believed that the requirement that any sign on a historic building get the Philadelphia Historical Commission’s blessing before it can be erected takes would take care of any potential problem.

When asked after the vote if he had concerns that the historical commission might let some large-format, non-accessory sign to go on a protected building, Gallery said, “I have concerns that the City Planning Commission doesn’t think historic preservation is part of its work.”

SCRUB founder Mary Tracy said the signs might be an appropriate way to make The Gallery look better, but it would be better to grant a variance or otherwise address that one property than to put such a large chunk of Market Street into a special district.

City resident Gabriel Gottlieb also said there were buildings that would benefit, but the swath should perhaps be trimmed by two blocks, and run from 8th to 12th streets.

But another resident, Brian McHale, said the proposal made a lot of sense to him as is. The money it would bring to fix Market East “is a big thing,” he said. And “if you can’t have large format signs here, where can you have them?

Reach the reporter at kgates@planphilly.com.

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