Planning wants more time to consider billboard legislation

Philadelphia City Planning Commission members said Tuesday they still need more time to assess the impact of a zoning bill that would allow owners of typical, one-dimensional billboards – condemned for the I-95 expansion project – to replace them with flashier billboards in the same vicinity.

Under Bill 100678
, the owner of a billboard or other structure condemned by PennDOT to make way for I-95 could rebuild anywhere within 350 feet of the current location and 200 feet from either side of the expanded highway regardless of how the new area is zoned. This bill has a new number and somewhat different wording from the version commissioners looked at in September – the first time they voted for a 45-day extension. But the main provisions in the bill are the same.

The first version was introduced by First District Councilman Frank DiCicco on Sept. 16, but DiCicco didn’t write it. It originated with Terry Steen, president of Steen Outdoor Advertising, a local leader in the billboard business. The new version was introduced Oct. 21 by DiCicco and Councilwoman-at-large Blondell Reynolds Brown. See previous coverage here and here.

City planner Paula Brumbelow told commissioners Tuesday that staff has spent the time since the September meeting researching the ramifications of the bill, but more remains to be done. The commission staff is still investigating whether the zoning proposal would allow any of the 32 billboards that would need to be relocated for the I-95 project to move into a residential area. The majority of the billboards are now located on the east side of I-95, which is mostly zoned industrial. But the bill would allow owners to switch to the west side of the highway, which is residential, provided they meet the other conditions of the bill.

View Steen billboards locations in a larger map
Other departments are also researching the bill, she said. The streets and legal departments are looking into the concern that passing the bill could could lead PennDOT to take away the city’s power to regulate billboards on the highway, or result in the loss of federal funding. The bill says that in order to be eligible for relocation, a billboard or structure must be currently legal. Brumbelow said the city’s department of licenses and inspections is now looking into the legal status of each of the billboards.

The bill is scheduled for a hearing before city council’s rules committee at 10 a.m. Nov. 29.

Planning Commissioner Brian Abernathy, chief of staff in the managing director’s office, has experience with city council’s rules committee from his time as DiCicco’s policy chief. He explained that under the city charter, the 45-day extension the commission voted for does not prevent City Council from holding hearings. Because the Planning Commission is an advisory board, Abernathy said, council could even vote on the issue without waiting for the commission’s recommendation if it wants to, but no new law could go into effect until the 45 days expired.

Deputy Mayor Alan Greenberger, who chairs the planning commission, noted that council will soon go on holiday recess, and so that also gives the commission more time to receive information and make a recommendation on the proposal.

Nowhere in the wording of the bill does the word “billboard” appear, but everyone who talks about the bill talks billboards first, and then mentions that it would affect other properties, too.

An email chain obtained by PlanPhilly after the first time the commission considered it shows that it was written by Steen, and that planners and others who discussed it prior to the earlier planning commission meeting referred to it as the billboard bill.

Interviews with top planners and city council staff members revealed that Steen first tried to get Councilwoman Joan Krajewski to introduce the legislation. Krajewski’s office wanted planning commission input before Krajewski decided whether or not to support the bill. Before Krajewski had made a decision, Steen approached DiCicco, who decided to introduce the bill before studying its impact in order to get the discussion going.

The bill has had critics from the beginning. Mary Tracy, director of the Society Created to Reduce Urban Blight or SCRUB, spoke against the bill at Tuesday’s commission meeting.

The billboards are now non-conforming uses, she said, which means that without the current proposal, they could not be rebuilt once taken down. “This is such a wonderful opportunity to finally clean some of the areas blighted by these billboards,” she said. Tracy is also very concerned about the opportunity the bill presents to replace a standard, flat billboard with an electronic, flashier one.

Greenberger asked Tracy if her organization could support the bill with amendments, or if it should be scrapped. “The second one,” she said.

But attorney Carl Primavera asked the commission to keep an open mind about the bill, because condemnation of billboards is not like condemnation of other structures.

When PennDOT condems billboards, it looks only at the value of the structure, not the lost potential income that the billboard would have generated, he said. The assumption this is based on is that the billboard owner could take the money and put the sign up elsewhere, Primavera said, but this is not the case because of existing city zoning laws that limit billboards.

The city has a “cap and replacement” requirement for new billboards, he said. “For you to put up a new billboard, you have to take one down,” he said.  And since every billboard in the city is now a non-conforming use, “there are no as-of-right locations,” he said.

“You can’t replace them anywhere in the city unless you get a zoning variance, and you can’t meet the variance requirements,” he said.

Billboard companies “have been calling in a frenzy” worried about what’s going to happen when they are condemned for I-95, he said.

In a Wednesday morning interview, Matt Kulpa, PennDOT’s District 6 right of way manager, described PennDOT’s billboard condemnation compensation:

The billboard company can choose to either be compensated for the physical billboard – the steel – or to have the billboard moved  to another location, he said.

Additionally, if the billboard company owns the property where the billboard stands, PennDOT will pay the company for the loss of that piece of property at fair market value.

If the billboard company is leasing the land, the property owner is paid for the parcel, and also for the value of the current lease, in today’s dollars. If the property owner has a 10-year lease with a billboard company, they would be paid the full revenue expected in the current year of that lease. But the later years’ revenue would be adjusted downward, taking into account the “escalation clauses” in the contract, Kulpa said.

Regardless of whether it’s a billboard, a restaurant or a store, “We do not pay for loss of business income,” Kulpa said.

The Commission also requested a 45-day extension on another sign-related bill introduced by DiCicco and At-large Councilman James Kenney. This one would designate Market Street between 7th and 13th streets a Commercial Advertising District. This bill would allow signs to be animated, to wrap around building corners, to be illuminated from within or by shining light on them (from sundown until 3 a.m.). It is also set for a Nov. 29 rules committee hearing.

The bill says its purpose is to promote the revitalization of the district – an area the city has tried to bolster for a long time. It requires that half of the revenue the sign generates in its first year be used to improve the interior or exterior of a building in the advertising district. Other cities around the world use such signs to highlight and improve the vibrancy of areas with high concentrations of entertainment, hospitality and retail uses, it states. DiCicco introduced a different bill with similar intent in January, but it was never up for consideration by council.

Talking about the new advertising district proposal, city planner Martin Gregorski told the commission, “I couldn’t go three sentences without pulling out something we had a problem with.” Gregorski said the commission “needs to decide if this is a good idea, and if it is a good idea, how do we go about it.”

Under the proposal, new projects fronted on this part of Market Street and existing buildings that are substantially renovated there could have a large format sign, which is basically a billboard. “No one is fooled by the term ‘large format signs,’” he said. “But these would not be under any of the requirements for billboards.”

Gregorski said staff is concerned about conflicts with the streets department process, because the signs could project up to 8 feet onto the public right of way. Staff also wonders if an outdoor advertising company could put up a sign in the district, then take it down in order to put one up elsewhere under the “cap and replacement” billboard guidelines, then come back and re-erect the sign on Market Street.

The bill states that its provisions would not allow signs on any building that is designated historic without the approval of the Historical Commission, unless the building has in the past had a sign that meets the description of a large format sign.

But that was not enough to appease John Gallery, executive director of the Preservation Alliance. He said he supported the staff recommendation that the commission not act on the bill for 45 days, but “I don’t think you need 45 days to understand this bill is inappropriate” and would have lots of consequences for Market Street.

Historic structures including the Reading Terminal Market and the Strawbridge and Clothier building would be harmed if such signs were allowed on buildings next to or across the street from them, he said. In fact, he said, from his perspective, the only building where these signs would be appropriate is The Gallery at Market East. And if the intent of this legislation is, in fact, to shore up the urban shopping center, “there are much more appropriate ways to do this rather than creating visual chaos on Market Street for the rest of us to endure.”

Read Gallery’s full testimony here and see maps of historic properties he provided here and here.

Primavera spoke in favor of this bill, calling it “bold thinking.” He said that the bill may need adjustment, but “I think we can get it right.”

Primavera also said that the signs should not be called billboards, but visual displays. The term billboard has a stigma attached to it, he said.

Chairman Greenberger asked staff to come back with images of these types of signs from other cities so that the commission could have a better idea of what the bill is talking about.

Commissioner Nancy Rogo Trainer asked that staff look at the wording of what the bill would allow in conjunction with the images. Otherwise, “You might be saying yes to an image, but the words of the bill could allow a whole bunch of other things.”

In other action:

Planners Richard Redding and Jennifer Barr gave an update on Philadelphia2035 – the city’s new comprehensive plan.

Redding told the commission that after the city-wide plan is complete, work will begin on 18 district plans. Each district is comprised of neighborhoods with similar issues and characteristics, and the commission’s community planners have been reassigned to these districts, he said. About four plans will be done each year, and as soon as the last one is done, the first will be reviewed, he said. These plans will take the goals of the master plan and apply them to a more local level. This includes a land use map for each district, and an assessment of different types of amenities to see where more are needed and also where there are too many for the population.

Barr reported on the fall series of public meetings in which residents were asked to prioritize their desires for projects to be included in Philadelphia2035.  Participants were given maps that showed each project in its proposed location and how much it would cost – but only half the money to do them all.

Participants picked projects where the spending of public dollars would yield significant private investment, Barr said. They chose things that were “good for the whole city, not just their neighborhood.”

Some of the top priorities identified through the process: Rapid transit for Roosevelt Boulevard, the greening of school yards, transit that would connect cultural institutions, a connection between Temple University and Temple Hospital, and extending the Broad Street subway to the Navy Yard.

The meetings also determined the public’s lowest priorities: New neighborhood gateways (such as signage and landscaping), a better I-95 interchange at the airport and a susquecentenial celebration for the 250th anniversary of the birth of the nation.

Philalephia 2035 presentation

The commission adopted the Philadelphia Pedestrian and Bicycle Plan which they had received extensive information about at an earlier meeting. See previous coverage here. And the group received an information-only report on the Department of Parks and Recreation’s Green 2015 Plan, presented by PennPraxis executive director Harris Steinberg. See previous coverage.

Philadelphia Pedestrian and Bicycle and Green2015 plans

The commission followed staff’s recommendation to vote against Zoning Bill 100721, which would create the “Fox Chase Environmental Control District” and prevent commercial farming from happening at Fox Chase Farm in the Far Northeast.

The farm, which is not open to the public, is operated by Fairmount Park and the city school district as an educational farm. There are animals at the farm, but no crops, Planner Brumbelow told the commission.

Staff recommended disapproval for the same reason the planning commission recommended that City Council not adopt similar environmental protections for Manatawna Farm in Roxborough: The underlying zoning already prohibits commercial farming, Brumbelow said. City Council went against the commission’s recommendation on that one, and created the special Manatawna district.

The city parks and rec department wants to bring small-scale commercial farming to Manatawna, but Brumbelow told the commission no one has an interest in bringing it to Fox Chase. She said some Fox Chase fans signed a petition seeking similar protections to Manatawna. A hearing before council’s rules committee will be held Nov. 29. See video of the Fox Chase discussion below.

Streets Bill 100676: Hartwell Lane

Fox Chase Farm

Streets Bill 100753: East Mermaid Lane

Arch Street parking garage and impact on Methodist Church

Reach the reporter at kgates@planphilly.com.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

It will take 126,000 members this year for great news and programs to thrive. Help us get to 100% of the goal.