Waterfront advocacy group says three billboard proposals run counter to the city’s long term riverfront goals

Members of the Central Delaware Advocacy Group say that three billboard proposals along the waterfront are both inconsistent with the city’s long-range vision for the waterfront and in violation of a waterfront zoning overlay.

Two of the projects are in Pennsport.

Riverview Development Corp. hopes to wrap a long-abandoned building – one which has no windows and looks rather bombed out –  at 1100 S. Columbus boulevard and place three billboards on it.  The building is owned by developer Bart Blatstein.

City Council has already passed a zoning bill legalizing a conventional Pennsport billboard advertising Club Risque and a suburban body shop that the Department of Licenses & Inspection ruled should come down. The bill, passed by City Council on June 16 but awaiting Mayor Michael Nutter’s signature, would also allow the billboard to be digital.

The third proposal concerns a billboard at 2055 Richmond Street, near the in-the-works Grasso music venue. The owner’s request for a variance allowing the billboard to advertise a use that is not on-site will be the subject of an Aug. 16 Zoning Board of Adjustment hearing.

CDAG voted Thursday to send letters expressing its opposition to the Blatstein proposal and the Richmond Street proposal to First District Councilman Frank DiCicco, the Zoning Board of Adjustment, the Planning Commission and other parties which could have influence on the outcome.

DiCicco said he has not received any information about the proposed project from Blatstein. “I have heard of Bart’s desire but have not gotten any requests from him as of today,” DiCicco said. “I will review his plan when and if he submits it to me after which time I will make a decision.”

The executive committee will discuss sending a letter about the Club Risque billboard to Nutter, urging him to veto the bill legalizing the non-accessory  use of that billboard.

Stephanie Kindt, in-house attorney for the anti-blight group SCRUB, urged CDAG to act quickly on the Club Risque billboard, because there is no way of knowing when Nutter will consider whether to sign or veto the ordinance.

As she did at the city council committee hearing on the billboard, Kindt told CDAG members the legislation, which was introduced by DiCicco and applies to the block bounded by Moore, Swanson, Morris and Water streets and Columbus Boulevard, is spot zoning.  The billboard has long been the subject of zoning back-and-forth between the owner and the city, and Kindt said the city law department has “spent hundreds of thousands” fighting to have the billboard removed. It dumbfounds her that City Council took a step counter to another branch of city government. Kindt also believes the law would open the city up for a spot-zoning lawsuit.

That billboard – and the building wrap proposal at 1100 S. Columbus – have generated much heated discussion in Pennsport.  See previous coverage. At the city council hearing, DiCicco stated that Pennsport “no longer opposes” the  Club Risque billboard that it had fought against.

At the CDAG meeting Thursday, Pennsport Civic President Dr. James Moylan said DiCicco called him before the hearing, told him it was a done deal, and asked if anyone from Pennsport would be there to speak against it. Moylan said he told him no one would be there. He said this was about an organization of limited resources and people picking its battles, and that the community has never supported a non-accessory billboard. “The only letter that exists is one opposing it,” he said. The billboard is above a daycare center, but Moylan said the daycare center has never expressed any concern to Pennsport Civic about it.

Moylan said that Pennsport Civic does not stand in opposition to the 1100 S. Columbus building wrap/advertising proposal, but it does not support it, either.

Blatstein has told the community group that he would clean and seal the building, wrap it with a material that would make it not seem deserted, and then place advertising on it. Twenty-five percent of the advertising would be about Pennsport. “It would say something like ‘Pennsport – A Great Place to Live and Work,’ or “Pennsport – if you lived here you’d be home,’” he said.

There would also be trees and fencing, he said.

Moylan said the building attracts illegal activity as it is, and he himself has gone over to chase people out. 

He said when he brought the issue up to the civic association board, response to the proposal was mixed, with some members saying anything that improved the abandoned building was great, some saying they didn’t like the advertising, but it was worth it to get rid of the eyesore, and others saying allowing the precedent of non-accessory advertising would be a bad thing under any circumstances.

Rene Goodwin, who sits on the Pennsport board, said that it was her understanding that there wasn’t a lot of response to Moylan’s initial inquiry, one way or the other. The proposal was the subject of a July ZBA hearing, but the ZBA postponed taking any action until the parties had more discussion – the continuance has yet to be rescheduled. Goodwin said that after the matter went before the ZBA and Pennsport residents learned more about it, the issue came up at another Pennsport meeting, and that at that meeting, many more board members opposed it.

A letter that Moylan sent to the ZBA states that Pennsport “has no objection to” the proposal, and that Blatstein’s proposed actions would improve a dangerous eyesore.

Moylan said after the CDAG meeting that what Pennsport really wants is for the derelict building and the problems it brings to go away without any advertising. The office recently contacted L&I, requesting an inspection to see if there are violations that the property owner must fix. L&I came out, but then told Pennsport that the building did not exist, he said. They were given more detailed directions to the building, and Pennsport is waiting for the results.

If L&I requires the building to be cleaned up, Moylan said, “I’ll send a letter of opposition (to the billboard project) that day.”

Kindt said that residents should be able to have a safe, clean site without advertising that violates zoning law.

L&I spokeswoman Maura Kennedy said that L&I did do an inspection at the site and cited the property for two violations on Aug. 4: There is no vacant building license for the property, and inspectors found an unsecured opening on the Washington Avenue side of the building.

Both issues can be addressed without making any major changes. Kennedy said the developer must pay $300 to obtain a vacant building license,  and must secure the first floor opening “so that people and debris can’t get in.”

Securing the opening could be achieved with a locked door or a piece of plywood, Kennedy said.  Only the first floor must be secured.

Contact the reporter at kgates@planphilly.com

WHYY is your source for fact-based, in-depth journalism and information. As a nonprofit organization, we rely on financial support from readers like you. Please give today.

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

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal