SEPTA backs down on proposal to wrap its building with ads

Posted: June 13, 2007

Facing stiff opposition from some key Market Street neighbors, SEPTA and its advertising firm have decided to withdraw a zoning request to wrap roughly two stories of the transit agency's Center City building with ads.

The decision was confirmed late yesterday by three people involved in the case, including two Center City community leaders who formally filed objections to the proposal. The three said they were notified by an attorney for Titan Outdoor, which sells ad space on SEPTA vehicles, stations and Trailpasses.

Mary Cawley Tracy, president of SCRUB, or Society Created to Reduce Urban Blight, and Ruthanne Madway, executive director of East of Broad Improvement Association, said Titan attorney Sharon Suleta told them the application would be formally withdrawn at 1 p.m. today at the city Zoning Board of Adjustment meeting.

Suleta could not be reached for comment, and a SEPTA spokesman said he had no information that the application would be withdrawn.

A spokeswoman for the city Department of Licenses & Inspections said the hearing was still on the Zoning Board's calendar. It is not uncommon, however, for applications to be withdrawn at a hearing's start.

Today's hearing had been scheduled by the board so that Titan and SEPTA could present evidence justifying their request for a "hardship" variance that would let the cash-strapped transit agency earn revenue by selling space almost the size of a football field on its building at 1234 Market St.

SEPTA has said the space - 16 by 280 feet, or 4,480 square feet, about the size of five I-95 billboards - would yield revenue that otherwise would come from riders.

But the proposal was opposed by SCRUB, East of Broad and other neighborhood leaders who argued that the ad wrap would be one more setback in an effort to revive the shopworn streetscape on Market Street East near the Convention Center.

Both Tracy and Madway yesterday praised the decision to drop the building ad wrap proposal.

"This is a good result," said Madway. "I think across the city agencies have expressed a real desire to improve East Market Street. . . . This would have had the opposite effect."

In fact, it appeared that SEPTA and Titan Outdoor faced a difficult challenge in selling the Zoning Board on the hardship variance.

In September 2003, the state Commonwealth Court ruled in a Philadelphia case that a property owner's financial hardship did not justify a variance for the large outdoor ad posted over an entire building wall.

Zoning board members seemed skeptical at a May meeting, and SEPTA and Titan may not have helped their cases by putting up a building wrap at 1234 Market last year - without permission.

The ad for Dunkin' Donuts came down after two months when L&I cited SEPTA for violating the zoning code.

SEPTA earned $10 million last year from advertising, about two percent of revenue in its $427.5-million budget. SEPTA officials have called ad revenue "increasingly important to mass transit companies."

Although SEPTA has declined to estimate how much revenue it could earn from the building wrap ads, industry experts have estimated an ad space that size and that prominent could produce $35,000 to $45,000 monthly.

Building wraps are not new and are common in New York's Times Square and Las Vegas. But scenic conservationists say the large ads destroy the public's ability to walk in a city and enjoy its architecture and environment.

Contact staff writer Joseph A. Slobodzian at 215-854-2985 or

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