Bad billboard moves in Philly, N.J. | Editorial
Setbacks or potential setbacks in local battles over billboards may be setting an unattractive precedent.
No vista, view, or strip of scenery in the Philadelphia region seems too lovely to escape the appraising gaze of the billboard industry, which ceaselessly searches for new places to grab your attention.
Consider the notion of building a two-faced digital billboard along the Schuylkill Expressway, on the edge of Philly’s Fairmount Park. Or the recent successful effort to persuade a South Jersey suburb to breach its hard-won billboard ban.
As digital image-making technology becomes more ubiquitous, sophisticated, and lucrative, some Philly-area billboard companies have gotten more creative in their pitches to local jurisdictions — including places trying to curb the proliferation of ever-flashier advertising everywhere and on every conceivable surface.
The Inquirer’s Jacob Adelman reported Wednesday that an effort is underway to revive a plan, shelved last year, to have City Council rezone a wooded stretch of land along the Schuylkill Expressway near Montgomery Drive to pave the way for the installation of a two-faced digital display by Outfront Media Inc. The new billboard apparently would be part of a deal to replace a conventional, single-sided billboard on the Schuylkill River Trail near the pediatric research tower of the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, which has sought to have that sign removed.
Meanwhile, Mount Laurel’s forward-thinking ban on billboards, a measure the township successfully defended against a legal challenge in federal court six years ago, was set aside earlier this month in exchange for the construction of a new emergency services building.
The Burlington County suburb couldn’t resist an offer from Catalyst Experiential LLC to build the $3.8 million facility — at “no cost” to the township. But Mount Laurel’s decision to allow the construction of three sizable outdoor digital displays as part of the deal sets a bad precedent. It’s a misnomer to call it at “no cost”: The cost is the erosion of the quality of public space — which ought to include at least some landscapes unfettered by commercial messages, rather than endless tracts sold out to the highest bidder.
Some communities have resisted the industry’s approaches. Last year, Interstate Outdoor Advertising, a company in Cherry Hill, promised to channel profits from a towering digital billboard it proposed to erect on the Camden Waterfront — where new structures of the sort are banned — into a fund to nourish the city’s nonprofit organizations. The plan was approved by the Camden zoning board but vetoed by Mayor Francisco “Frank” Moran.
Complicated political backstories may well have played a role in all three of these billboard battles, while aesthetic and environmental concerns appear to have taken a backseat. But those concerns ought to govern, because quality of life, as well as safety, can be impacted by the visual clutter and distracting cacophony of digital imagery, particularly along heavily traveled roads.
The technological wizardry involved may enable billboard companies to describe their offerings as community enhancements that help create a sense of place. Catalyst Experiential promotes itself as a provider of “meaningful experiences that combine art, architecture, and advertising.” Companies may claim advertising is a form of entertainment or art, but it isn’t. Municipal leaders should understand the difference.