Changing Skyline: Warehouse-size billboard eyed for Philadelphia site near Delaware River

Joe Cleary, a property manager with Tower Investments Inc., uses spray paint to cover graffiti on the vacant Pennsylvania Railroad warehouse near Front Street and Washington Avenue.
Joe Cleary, a property manager with Tower Investments Inc., uses spray paint to cover graffiti on the vacant Pennsylvania Railroad warehouse near Front Street and Washington Avenue. (MICHAEL S. WIRTZ / Staff Photographer)
Posted: July 22, 2011

It's as much a Philadelphia landmark as the statue of William Penn on City Hall, though hardly something that aspires to be an emblem of greatness. Is there anyone who has traveled the south Delaware waterfront and not marveled at the four-story concrete skeleton that lurks behind the RiverView shopping center on Columbus Boulevard, its naked columns flouting both gravity and civic decency?

That ruin, which looks as if it had been airlifted in from Kabul, was purchased more than 20 years ago by Bart Blatstein, who was a run-of-the-mill strip-mall developer before graduating to finer things in Northern Liberties. Blatstein unloaded the RiverView in 2003 - as part of a $75 million deal - but held onto its concrete companion in the hope of making a killing when a casino opened on the South Philadelphia waterfront.

Now it appears there will be no casino and no killing, and Blatstein is seeking other ways to turn a difficult piece of real estate into money. Since the structure hugs the edge of I-95, he's appealing to the Zoning Board of Adjustment for permission to wrap its bones in advertisements, effectively converting the old Pennsylvania Railroad warehouse into a double-sided billboard.

In a preliminary review, a city building examiner turned the proposal down flat, noting that the wrap would violate at least nine zoning provisions. It's too close to a dense rowhouse neighborhood (Pennsport), too close to a historic landmark (Old Swedes' Church), too close to another billboard (Avalon Carpet Tile and Flooring). And although the examiner failed to mention it, Blatstein's billboard would also violate the zoning guidelines recently put in place to turn the Delaware waterfront into something more than a dumping ground for big-box stores and their asphalt lots.

None of this seemed to bother the president of the Pennsport Civic Association, James Moylan. Without calling a membership meeting, he provided Blatstein with a letter of "non-opposition" - that's the weaselly language used in Philadelphia to convey support for a zoning proposal - to submit to the zoning board at a hearing last week. Such letters carry great weight.

Moylan has been Pennsport's president only since May, but it's the second time he has given a thumbs-up to a controversial billboard. Right before a City Council vote in June to legalize a billboard on top of the Columbus Boulevard Club Risque, he told the district's councilman, Frank DiCicco, that Pennsport would not fight the measure, the blog PlanPhilly reported. I wonder how many other Philadelphia civic groups would passively accept a billboard on a strip club.

Both Moylan and Blatstein argue that it's better to look at a billboard than a blighted building. With the revenue from ads, Blatstein promises to seal the structure to keep out vandals and trash. The wrap is only temporary, Blatstein assured me in an interview, a stopgap until development takes off on the waterfront. "The day that someone breaks ground across the street, I'll take it down," he promised.

If you like that offer, I have a bridge upriver that's for sale.

While it's true the concrete relic doesn't have great curb appeal, the solution isn't to shroud it from view. The problem is that building wraps act as a disincentive to development. Why bother with the risk and stress of constructing something new when you can sit back and take in six figures annually for doing almost nothing?

Wraps are just like parking lots. Many Philadelphians would be surprised to learn that Center City's surface lots are allowed only a five-year life span. But since there is no limit on renewals, some "temporary" lots have been earning a tidy income for more than half a century.

The advantage of the wrap, Moylan argues, is that it will force Blatstein to board up the structure's openings. That's a pretty weak excuse for granting Blatstein a gold mine. Owners are expected to maintain their properties, regardless of whether their speculative fantasies fall flat.

"We should be slapping him with fines rather than rewarding him with variances," argued Steven Weixler, head of the Central Delaware Advocacy Group, an alliance of Delaware riverfront neighborhoods, which opposes the wrap.

If the zoning board allows Blatstein to create a warehouse-size billboard off Washington Avenue, it will undermine the prospects for quality waterfront development. Philadelphia is just putting the finishing touches on the Delaware master plan, after years of public discussion. The goal is to get rid of the visual pollution from billboards so a real neighborhood can take root.

Ironically, one of the waterfront master plan's biggest champions, Councilman DiCicco, also has been a big billboard supporter.

As a group, City Council has been especially generous with billboard companies, which tend to return the favor with campaign contributions. Council just passed legislation to make it easier for owners to relocate signs displaced by I-95 construction. With DiCicco's support, the Club Risque billboard was legalized over the Planning Commission's opposition.

Last week's zoning hearing, which will resume sometime in the next few weeks, raised other disturbing issues. ZBA Chair Lynette Brown-Sow indicated that she would bar testimony from anyone outside the Pennsport Civic Association. If there is any justification for tolerating billboards in our midst, it's for free-speech reasons. So how can we deny people the opportunity to speak out against them?

Brown-Sow's stand also reinforces the notion that Philadelphia is a collection of fiefs run by bosses, rather that a big city where everyone has a stake in decisions. Thousands drive by Blatstein's structure daily. Residents on the north side of Washington Avenue can see it from their front windows, even though they are outside Pennsport's boundaries, in Queen Village. Their neighborhood group sent the ZBA a letter opposing the wrap, but it's unclear whether Brown-Sow will admit it as testimony.

Old, ruined buildings are often an eyesore, but they can almost always be transformed into something better; their presence offers people hope for the future. All a billboard offers us is a passing glance.


Contact architecture critic Inga Saffron at 215-854-2213, isaffron@phillynews.com, or @ingasaffron on Twitter.

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