July 18, 1999
Signs Sealed and Delivered
Billboard opponents are wondering why the city continues to ignore its own laws.
by Gwen Shaffer
South Philadelphias Franklin Delano Roosevelt Park is a haven of shiny green grass and tweeting birds amid a sea of concrete monstrosities the Vet, the First Union Center, Interstate-95. Joggers, cyclists, train watchers and dog walkers visit the park to enjoy the view of tall, billowing trees and the vast sky overhead.
But this view is one step closer to being obscured, due to a city zoning board ruling that would allow four double-sided billboards to be erected on property directly adjacent to the park. Opponents vow to appeal the decision.
Though city code prohibits billboards from going up so close to a park, the Zoning Board of Adjustment (ZBA) granted a permit to railroad giant Conrail last Wednesday. The property, which separates the I-95 underpass and the Philadelphia Naval Business Center, was zoned "recreational" more than 10 years ago. The zoning variance just granted will permit industrial use of the land.
The ZBA voted 3 to 2 to grant the variance June 23. Board members are not required to provide a basis for their vote.
The exact site of the Conrail-owned property is south of FDR Park, west of South Broad Street and just north of the Naval Yard. Three train tracks run through it, and it is adjacent to a skateboard park beneath the I-95 overpass.
A total of eight billboards, 14 feet by 48 feet each, would be mounted on large vertical supports. Each support would be between 4 and 5 feet in diameter at its base, and range in height from 66 to 97 feet above ground level.
Following the May 12 zoning board hearing for Conrails application, architect and community developer Gray Smith submitted "expert testimony" advising against allowing the billboards.
The written report points out that, for traffic safety reasons, billboards are prohibited within 660 feet of highway entrance and exit ramps. All eight of the proposed signs, however, fall within this proximity including two that are within 200 feet of Broad Street ramps to I-95.
Smith also concluded that the massive signs would significantly contribute to the "blight" already caused by 14 other billboards near the property under dispute.
But Conrail says it applied for a permit before these billboard restrictions were implemented. The company doesnt believe it should be punished for the citys inaction.
The property was originally zoned recreational "by mistake," according to Carl Primavera, an attorney representing Conrail.
Primavera, perhaps the leading billboard attorney in the city, is a longtime friend of Mayor Ed Rendell. He works at the mayors former law firm of Mesirov Gelman Jaffe Cramer & Jamieson, whose lawyers contributed a total of $25,000 to Rendells campaign in 1996 and 1997.
The whole FDR Park situation is "quirky," Primavera says.
"You cant have private property zoned recreational, yet that is what happened."
Conrail has been "very patient," waiting more than 10 years for zoning approval of the billboards, Primavera notes. His client filed an application a decade ago, back when the law allowed billboards to be erected without a problem on industrial land.
While waiting for the property zoning to be changed from recreational to industrial, the laws governing billboards became more restrictive.
"It is a catch-22," Primavera says.
"You cant attract businesses into a community when it looks junky," anti-billboard activist Mary Tracy says.
Others disagree. Opposition to the variance has emerged from the grassroots to the highest levels of City Hall.
The Friends of FDR Park, City Council President Anna Verna and the Society Created to Reduce Urban Blight (SCRUB) have all spoken out against constructing billboards o n the property. An attorney in Councilman David Cohens office, Robert Jaffe, is representing billboard opponents.
"Park areas should be sacrosanct," says Mary Tracy, president of SCRUB. "The zoning board should be committed to upholding the law "
A business-friendly Rendell has no problem with the barrage of billboards in Philadelphia, Tracy adds. "Who makes money off of this? Only the property owner. The situation is entirely untaxed, unregulated and unmonitored."
The monetary value of the billboards is uncertain, according to Primavera. But Jaffe says a double-sided sign located in a "prime" spot this close to I-95 could easily generate $200,000 per year for Conrail.
While the mayor may believe that by allowing billboards he is creating a business-friendly climate, others disagree.
The Philadelphia Industrial Development Corporation (PIDC) expressed opposition to new billboards going up near FDR Park. That quasi-governmental agency is trying to woo businesses into the adjacent Naval Business Center. The intersection of Broad Street and I-95 where the billboards would be posted serves as the "gateway" to the Naval Business Center, PIDC officials told ZBA members.
"You cant attract businesses into a community when it looks junky," Tracy says.
"Do cutting-edge businesses want to come in when their view is the line of a billboard?" Jaffe questions.
Mayoral spokesperson Kevin Feeley says that while he is glad to hear his boss characterized as "business-friendly," it is unfair to paint all billboards with such a "broad stroke."
"There are some billboard transactions where the city is benefiting and money ends up in city coffers," he says, pointing to signs placed on land near the Water Revenue Department.
If Conrails zoning variance withstands an appeal, the billboards will be erected just feet away from a skateboard park directly under the I-95 overpass. On a typical summer day, as many as 200 kids from around the city can be found scraping their knees against the curving cement walls built specifically for their use.
"Im against the billboards," says Patrick Bodor, a mason and avid skateboarder who helped build the park. "There are too many kids here who could see beer ads if an anti-drug group advertised, maybe that would be a different story."
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