Bright Lights, Big Mistake?

Artist's rendering of what a corner in the Market East corridor might look like if developers get City Council approval for the addition of lighted and animated advertising signs to facades on buildings between 7th and 13th streets.
Artist's rendering of what a corner in the Market East corridor might look like if developers get City Council approval for the addition of lighted and animated advertising signs to facades on buildings between 7th and 13th streets.
Posted: November 26, 2010

IMAGINE Market Street East lit up like Times Square, with large animated, digital advertising signs, some on rooftops, brightening the night until 3 a.m.

It could be a dazzling beacon, argue supporters of a City Council bill that would create a commercial advertising district on Market, between 7th and 13th streets.

The lighting would draw tourists and convention-goers to a new entertainment zone near the Gallery shopping mall, they say.

"It's a way to enliven Market Street East and give it a more exciting sense of vitality," said Carl Primavera, an attorney who represents billboard companies.

He said developers want to invigorate Market East, envisioning it full of themed restaurants, sidewalk caf├ęs and movie theaters.

There is talk of bringing in upscale "big-box retail stores" to draw Center City residents who now drive to South Philadelphia for their general household shopping, Primavera said.

"Right now, it's underwhelming. It's fatigued," he said of Market East, adding that it won't be a place that conventioneers and tourists will want to visit if it stays the way it is.

"Now [conventioneers], get on a bus and go to King of Prussia," Primavera said. "But what if they could go one block to Market Street to do some shopping and then walk over to see the Liberty Bell?"

But what some see as filling Market East with dazzling visuals to draw shoppers and tourists, opponents see as a "disaster" in the making.

"They're talking about taking what could be a really majestic area and totally stigmatizing it with honky-tonk junk," said Mary Tracy, executive director of SCRUB (Society Created to Reduce Urban Blight). "People are coming to our city to visit the historic areas; that's our brand.

"If we let somebody cover up our brand, the unique historical atmosphere and ambience of that, then we're paying too great a price for something that has dubious results."

The Planning Commission last week voted to ask for a 45-day extension to study the bill, sponsored by Councilmen Frank DiCicco and James Kenney.

Putting history in a bad light?

John Andrew Gallery, executive director of the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia, said it would be a disaster to place large, animated signs next to the historical landmarks on Market Street.

He pointed to the former Strawbridge and Clothier and Lit Brothers department-store buildings, at 8th and Market streets, and several buildings on the south side of Market, at 7th Street, that are listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

"Excluding historical buildings is not enough," he said. "You have to exclude buildings adjacent to historic buildings, also."

He used the PSFS building, now the Loews Philadelphia Hotel, on Market near 12th, as an example. The building, completed in 1932, is on the National Register as the first skyscraper built in the United States in the International Style, a sleek, modernist style that emerged in the 1920s and '30s.

"To put up a large animated sign on the 1234 Market St. building would be a disaster for the PSFS building," Gallery said.

At a Planning Commission meeting last week, city planner Martin Gregorski described the bill as "flawed."

"I couldn't go three sentences without pulling out something we had a problem with," he said.

He said the animated signs are basically billboards. "No one is fooled by the term 'large-format signs,' " Gregorski said.

He also said that the bill conflicts with other city laws. For example, it would allow signs, some 20 feet in the air, to project up to 8 feet into the street. Overhead signs may now project only 3 feet into the street, he said.

Updating a bleak stretch

Supporters and opponents of the legislation agree that the Market East that will draw thousands of Black Friday shoppers today looks bleak and dreary.

There are dozens of scruffy-looking businesses, including dollar stores and clothing stores with cheap velour jogging suits in their front windows. Drugstores compete for customers on every corner.

On one block alone - between 10th and 11th streets - there are three stores hawking gold jewelry.

According to Paul Levy, executive director of the Center City District, revenue from advertising is needed to "stimulate development in that corridor."

He said he disagreed that the proposed changes would make the area look like Times Square and that the bill permits large ads only on buildings whose owners have agreed to use the money to improve their properties, both the interior and exterior.

Tracy said SCRUB would support revitalization efforts along Market East and could offer suggestions for "this neglected corridor."

"[But] we fail to understand how a cluttered corridor of signage with ads for casinos, booze and movies will add to the vitality of East Market. . . . Across the city, revitalization has taken place without using walls of buildings for ads."

Rosanne Loesch, president of the Society Hill Civic Association, said any new sign provisions "should be part of the professional planning process and not something proffered by City Council or by someone speaking on behalf of a client. Professional planning staff should be making these decisions with the input of community groups."

Stephen Huntington, a board member of the Center City Residents Association, said the zoning commission is addressing sign issues as it completes its work to revamp the city's zoning code.

But Primavera praised the bill as "a bold idea."

"Philadelphia is always afraid to do anything different," he said. "Before Liberty Place was built, and it was going to be taller than the William Penn statue above City Hall, some people thought the world was going to end."

Primavera said the signs aren't like the "old-school billboards" on the sides of warehouses along Interstate 95.

"We're talking about visual displays and all kinds of neat designs," he said. "It becomes a very graphic visual and makes the place very attractive and energized, especially with the Convention Center expanding."

According to Levy, the idea could make Market East resemble lively "hospitality districts" like Los Angeles' L.A. Live, the Denver Arts District, and Yonge Street or the Eaton Centre in Toronto.

"This could be our Michigan Avenue," he said, referring to the Chicago boulevard, "a thriving business district that does not look dead after dark."

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