Monday, October 25, 2021

Can electronic billboards revive downtown?

When you've got worries all the noise and the hurry
Seems to help I know
Just listen to the music of the traffic in the city
Linger on the sidewalk where the neon signs are pretty
How can you lose?
The light's so much brighter there
You can forget all your troubles, forget all your cares downtown

 (Petula Clark, "Downtown" song, 1965)

Baltimore is only the latest battleground for the $8.2 billion billboard industry to expand its latest technology into the downtowns of bigger US cities.

Digital displays are the future of outdoor advertising. The new technology draws attention providing a high profile approach to delivering your advertising message. Digital displays typically hold your message for 10 seconds and the number of advertisers per display can vary. Additionally, digital displays now offer options never before available to outdoor advertising; networking capabilities, daypart selection and static or fully animated creative. The advertising message can easily be changed with a simple electronic file download. (Atlanta Billboard Company)
An Atlanta example of an electronic sign under their new sign
ordinance (Atlanta Curbed). 

Twenty years ago Baltimore had an epic billboard fight which left the advertisers only with their legacy signs that had been in place back then. Not only are they still there, some of them have also been converted to giant television screens, or in the industry parlance "variable message signage". Now the national billboard giants feel it’s time to expand their reach: How about selling the latest technology as "game changers" that add "vibrancy, vitality and place-making" to downtowns?

Baltimore rolls out the carpet

In a time where downtowns suffer from a noticeable absence of people thanks to the pandemic,  advertisers found a receptive audience in those whose business it is is to promote downtown.  For example, Shelanda Stokes, of the Baltimore Downtown Partnership. Following Petula Clark’s lead, she says that downtown electronic billboards promoting Toyota, Coca Cola or dog food would bring everything that's missing, including walkability, synergy motion, art and light.   

Downtown residents beg to differ. They should matter, since they are what fills the vacant and obsolete former office buildings and are downtown's best chnace for a prosperous future.  Barbara Valeri describes her view in a letter to the editor in the SUN where she opines that the bill is not a bright  but a dim idea. She told the Brew: “fix the roads, mend the sidewalks, get rid of trash and clutter and graffiti, make downtown safer and focus on other basic upgrades.”

Area of Special Sign Control (DPoB website)

Let’s enliven downtown by welcoming more small and minority-owned businesses, erecting more affordable housing, and cleaning our streets and harborways (Barbara Valeri in SUN letter).

A City Council Committee, the full Council and the Planning Commission fell easily for the beckoning of the billboard industry. Unlike councils in other US cities they waved a new bill right through, before the general public had time to realize what is being discussed. This is surprising, since last year a bill to allow billboards along rail right of ways went up in flames. Apparently the lesson the lawmakers drew from that defeat was to run over their constituents this time. An appeal of  William King, interim president of the City Center Residents’ Association (CCRA) and attorney by profession, to delay the final vote on the bill did not stop the Council to finalize the vote and approve the bill the same night. Councilman Costello, the bill sponsor, has yet to meet with the CCRA, according to King.

Legacy billboard on the JFX in Baltimore

Other cities

Other cities should be a warning or a lesson as well:  When Indianapolis was under similar pressure to put variable message signage downtown, there was a public outcry, a city led survey and a clear stand of the city's mayor pushing back. As a result the ban on new digital billboards, a technology coveted by advertisers but reviled by neighborhood activists, still stands. In San Jose the fight was led by a strong opposition with arguments that are similar to those of opponents here. The billboard expansion bill was halted for the time being.

“The idea that San Jose can be the next Times Square (above) is an illusion and it's misguided. There’s a real categorical difference between signs that embody the history and culture of a place that advertise a local business or tell a story about entrepreneurship versus a TV screen that changes every seven seconds, and has no connection to the place that it’s located” Ben Leech, executive director of Preservation Action Council of San Jose.
“If the city is so convinced that this change in our signage will benefit the city, then it should be voted on by the people, not politicians who may or may not be supported by the sign lobbies.” San Jose resident Alex Taylor to Councilmember Raul Peralez. 
The Ludlow, East Market Phillly, proposed sign. (BLK Architects)

The billboard industry is a special interest group and they’re the sole beneficiaries of this sign ordinance change. There’s just no public benefit here." Les Levitt, San Jose downtown resident

The billboard industry likes to point to other cities such as Atlanta, Washington DC and Philadelphia which already adopted special sign districts and allow electronic billboards. As far as I can tell, DC allows only 32 individual "special signs". Atlanta's ordinance maybe the most far reaching, but it allows only static signs with scrolling letters and has many restrictions regarding size, location and glare. Philadelphia also doesn't simply open the door but puts strict criteria in place, including a requirement for large investments:

The public improvement requires a minimum investment of ten million dollars ($10,000,000), exclusive of any facade work directly associated with construction and operation of the sign.

(c) The public improvement has been completed prior to the application for a zoning permit, or will be completed pursuant to an approved investment schedule prepared in accordance with subsections (.1) through (.3), below. 

Shuttered downtown stores Baltimore (Photo: Philipsen)
Philadelphia's investment requirement makes a lot of sense in a city with high levels of disinvestment and abandonment. Imagine profit hungry advertisers just wall papering abandoned buildings with lucrative billboards; the result  would be a Potemkin Village instead of a lively downtown!  

The billboard industry also doesn’t mention cities that subscribe to “Dark Sky” policies (Pittsburgh) or tasteful and reduced advertising. (London, Piccadilly Circus). 

The spark that comes from lights 

True, Baltimore's downtown streets frequently lack vitalility, even during the daytime. Where are the people one wonders and at night when many businesses go dark behind steel shutters, the impression of dullness increases. The many restrictions on signage codified in Baltimore's reformed zoning code don't help, although the code allows for "Areas of Special Sign Control (ASSC) districts, exactly the provision this new bill uses. 

Anyone flipping through photos of Baltimore's heydays will find that the many neon signs dotting the buildings  provided as sense of activity. Large projecting signs are now banned, unless they are historic like the one on the Mount Royal Tavern. One can see how Petula Clark in her often quoted "Downtown" song attributed attraction to those signs. 

But the variable message board is far from the cherished neon signs which to this day signals economic vitality.  Instead of enhancing a building it simply covers it up or, worse, sits on top of it. Where the neon sign can be a sculpture the e-board is as flat as a photo of sculpture.

Historic projecting neon signs (High Mountain Signs)

What's next? 

The City Council adopted new ordinance only sets a framework for the new types of signs, including where they could occur. Details are to be worked out by a yet to be created group of  city agencies and stakeholders. A detailed plan would have to be  approved by the Planning Commission

But some fairly specific details have already been worked out between the Downtown Partnership and the potential advertisers in what the Baltimore Brew said was a "service agreement". DPoB describes some of the deals they have in mind on their website

DPOB is requiring all media companies participating in the District to live up to a far higher standard of community benefits and responsiveness than any other signs in the City.

"15-20% of those billboards to be dedicated to small business, minority business and local artists,” and that DPOB is asking for 1% share of the signage revenues for its organization plus 1% for each of the city’s four arts and entertainment districts. According to calculations performed by DPoB there could be as many as 20,227 sf of those signs in the designated area. That would amount to 2.4 times the size of the giant landmark Domino Sugar sign.

As noted, digital signboards are much different than the beloved Domino Sugar sign. They are essentially giant TV screens and in that way they can display any image in any color, including animated displays. For an impression on how those signs work, go up Charles Street and look at the giant billboard across from Penn Station that once was once a static paper billboard depicting the Natty Boh man proposing to the Utz girl.

Domino Sugar sign (Baltimore SUN)
When  it went electronic, the promise was also to display a certain amount of art, a pledge that has long hit the dustbin, because those things require a lot of organization to actually happen. 

The Charles Street e-billboard is so bright that even residents in distant Bolton Hill were bothered by the flicker cast into their bedrooms. 

Visual stimulation through additional screens is most likely not at all what makes downtown attractive at night. 

Anyone who has been at Times Square lately can attest that the screens all around the area are impressive but overpowering. After a short while their blue-white flicker becomes far more annoying than a wall of screens in a sports-bar can ever be. Comparing their effect to that of the old neon signs is like comparing gas station lighting with a romantic dinner candle.

Model Times Square? Urbanity through by Giant TV screens?

Baltimore Planning Commission chair Sean Davis promised in the hearing of the initial bill that  “I’m going to be a real jerk when it comes to the actual signage plan.”  On the way to fleshing out Baltimore's new enabling legislation, there will be many opportunities to channel the matter into a productive course. No doubt, good signs can enliven a downtown, and that would be a good thing.  

As always, the devil is in the detail. The ordinances of other cities can be a good guide for how to control size, brightness, animation, change-over speed and the height to which those signs can reach. Giving away 22,000 sf of  fa├žade area to a multi billion industry in exchange for a few peanuts is not the way to do it.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA 

No comments:

Post a Comment