by Sue Ann Rybak

Imagine strolling along Germantown Avenue on your way to the Chestnut Hill Library. As you approach the intersection of Bethlehem Pike, an enormous digital billboard flashes in front of your eyes, temporarily blinding you before displaying an ad for a McDonald’s cheeseburger.

It could happen, thanks to legislation allowing billboards on municipal properties such as the Chestnut Hill Library, 8711 Germantown Ave., and the Water Tower Recreation Center, 209 E. Hartwell Rd.

The bill, passed by a 15-0 vote last May, was co-sponsored by Council President Darrell Clarke and Councilman Bobby Henon.

In March, the city issued a request for proposals (RFP) for the City’s Municipal Advertising Program, which will allow advertising on city-owned buildings and vehicles. The deadline for advertisers to submit their proposals is Thursday, May 15. The RPF includes a list of buildings that the city considers appropriate for advertising. The Chestnut Hill Library is one of the 45 neighborhood libraries targeted for ads.

Terry Clark, of Chestnut Hill, said the city is sending a bad message by placing billboards on libraries and recreation centers.

“The Chestnut Hill Library is a historic building,” Clark said. “It’s a beautiful building that is going to be desecrated, and it’s going to look awful.”

Philanthropist Henry Williams built the original Christian Hall Library in 1872. In 1897, the library became a branch of the Free Library of Philadelphia. In 1907, a new library was built on the same site funded by Andrew Carnegie.

Clark, a former teacher, added that the city should not be commercializing neighborhood public spaces.

“It’s bad enough that so many other things children see are commercialized,” Clark said. “The message to children is, if we use schools and libraries to sell things, then, these things must be good.”

Clark said she understands the city is looking for unique ways to fund libraries, but added that this is “a quick fix.”

“I don’t think it’s tasteful and thoughtful,” Clark said. “It’s going to make our community look ugly.”

Clark said she was against placing billboards or other types of advertising, such as wraparounds, in neighborhoods across the city.

“Even if it’s in a neighborhood that is not as beautiful as Chestnut Hill, it’s still sticking an ugly thing on top of a library or other public building that’s there for a civic purpose.”

Amy Dougherty, executive director of Friends of the Free Library of Philadelphia, said Friends’ groups are in opposition to allowing advertisers to place billboards and other forms of advertising on libraries.

“These are our neighborhoods,” Dougherty said. “We don’t want billboards on our libraries. They are like our second home. They are the community centers of our neighborhood. The Friends of the Free Library of Philadelphia will be actively advocating against billboards.”

David T. Moore, president of the Friends of Mt. Airy’s Lovett Memorial Free Library branch, said Lovett is not among the city buildings for which advertising proposals are being solicited, “perhaps because of the configuration of the building’s roof line and windows.”

“So,” he added, “it is with some hesitation that I comment on the concept. But let me say that I appreciate both the city’s desperate financial need to ‘dig in the sofa cushions’ for every penny and the challenge inherent in striking any balance of propriety regarding content and aesthetics of advertising on and inside public buildings.”

Mary Tracy, executive director of Scenic Philadelphia, an anti-blight group, was surprised the legislation was initially passed because most of the legislation regarding billboards in the last 40 years has been to limit billboards.

“The city is definitely moving in a different direction,” Tracy said.

Tracy said she initially thought the bill would not pass because the administration was reluctant to support any legislation that might jeopardize federal funding the city received for those public buildings.

She added that she was surprised Clarke pursued outdoor advertising such as digital billboards because he has helped to remove thousands of billboards in some of “our most financially challenged neighborhoods.”

According to the Clarke’s website, “The enhancement of the Quality of Life of all Philadelphians is a primary concern for Council President Clarke. Due to his efforts, hundreds of unsightly illegal billboards are being removed throughout the City. In addition, he passed legislation prohibiting alcohol advertising within 1,000 feet of schools, playgrounds and other places frequented by children.”

“And now we are going to start putting those signs in there,” Tracy said. “It’s very well documented that outdoor advertising can really stigmatize a neighborhood.”

A study entitled “Beyond Aesthetics: How Billboards Affect Economic Prosperity” found that homes within 500 feet of a billboard are worth $30, 826 less on average at the time of the sale than those properties farther away from the billboards.”

The study also found that cities with stricter billboard controls have greater median incomes, lower poverty rates and lower home vacancy rates than cities with less billboard regulations.

Tracy pointed out that billboards detract not only from a neighborhood’s aesthetics, but also “its sense of place and the mental and physical well being of its residents.”

“Our libraries and recreation centers are right at the heart of our neighborhood,” Tracy said. “And having a huge soda sign in your neighborhood is really insulting.”

Tracy questioned the legality of allowing billboards for certain businesses and not others.

“They (the city) are the rule makers and the rule enforcers,” she said. “Now the same government body is saying ‘I am going to go into business with you.’ So, they are playing both sides of the transaction here. I don’t know how effective that is. I think they could seriously be challenged legally by companies that can’t put a billboard in 660 feet of a library but the city can put it right on the library. How does that stand up to court scrutiny? There is definitely a double standard there.”

When Richard Negrin, managing director of the City’s Municipal Advertising Program, was asked by the Local if the city would be following the same guidelines as other companies for billboards, he replied “Yes.”

“We are going to follow all the laws required,” Negrin said. “There is no waiver for any of those laws for us.”

Negrin said unfortunately when people think of outdoor advertising they immediately think of billboards.

“Nobody is talking about putting an old-fashioned billboard on a historic building,” Negrin said. “That makes no sense.”

Negrin said the city is hoping to get a broad range of ideas about how to advertise.

“One of the reasons, why the RFP is written so broadly is because we don’t want to quell creativity,” Negrin said. “We are hoping that the 12 or so parties that are interested in submitting a proposal are as creative as possible around how they advertise and, hopefully, utilizing technology – whether it’s projection or whether it’s creative wraps – things that not only give us some increased revenue but also things of beauty.”

Negrin used the Municipal Service Building (MSB) as an example.

“If you look at it right now on the front level of the MSB, there are large glass panes that have a wrap on them, right now – that focuses on literacy,” he said. “Nobody is complaining about the fact that the wrap, which is focused on literacy, is impacting the integrity of the MSB building.”

Other ideas that he hopes advertisers will suggest include projection ads, elevator wraps, and kiosks.

“Putting up wraps around recreation centers that highlight things going on with Parks and Recreation or other organizations, while raising money for those same kids, is a win-win,” Negrin said.

Tracy, the executive director of Scenic Philadelphia, encouraged residents to reach out to their legislators and voice their opinions on this matter.

“I think if we are going to go in this direction, there has to be far more public involvement in this,” she said. “It’s a sad day for me when our good Philadelphia laws and the protections citizens instilled and got passed so long ago, are now being ignored as not being important or relevant anymore.”

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