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Lights on Lits getting mixed reviews

Some Center City residents say new digital billboards harm city dwellers’ quality of life.

Allan Stein looks out of the guest bedroom window at his Washington Square West apartment on Feb. 4, 2015. His north-facing windows now overlook the new flashing neon sign on the Lits building. ( ELIZABETH ROBERTSON / Staff Photographer )
Allan Stein looks out of the guest bedroom window at his Washington Square West apartment on Feb. 4, 2015. His north-facing windows now overlook the new flashing neon sign on the Lits building. ( ELIZABETH ROBERTSON / Staff Photographer )Read more

THE OWNERS of the historic Lit Brothers Department Store building on Market Street between 7th and 8th could barely hide their excitement when they announced that the building would be "lit up" with rooftop LED advertising Jan. 20.

Their news release was sprinkled with adjectives like cinematic and spectacular. "The twin giant LED displays mark a pivotal point in the revitalization of Market Street East and bring the first ad-friendly, digital-motion graphic installation in Philadelphia," the release said.

But a little more than two blocks south, residents of a well-appointed condo building on Washington Square are not celebrating. In fact, they're angry about having to live with the moving-picture-like ads that shine dazzling lights into their large scenic windows, day and night.

"I think it's garish," Mickey Magid said of the display. "It shines right into my living room and reflects off a beautiful painting we have."

Her husband, concert promoter Larry Magid, co-owner of the Electric Factory, called the digital billboards a threat to their quality of life.

"With the city growing once again and Center City leading the way, we can't have large lit signs shining in people's windows with bright, changing lights," he said. "It's just a bad idea."

But Magid said that when he called City Councilman Mark Squilla's office to complain, an aide told him:

"Get used to it, there's a lot more coming!"

The Magids' neighbor Allan Stein, a Rutgers University law professor, is also fuming.

He called the bright lights on Market Street "the reckless defacement" of what had been a beautiful and peaceful neighborhood.

"I feel like a big part of my apartment has been stolen," said Stein, who moved into the Ayer Condominium on West Washington Square, near 7th and Walnut streets, in October.

Now, he's thinking of filing a nuisance lawsuit.

"It's a beautiful neighborhood," Stein said. "My east windows look out on Washington Square. My north windows used to look out at a beautiful roofscape that could have been in London at the turn of the [20th] century. It was just as beautiful as the park."

A line of historic buildings can be seen at street level on Walnut Street from Stein's windows:

At 7th and Walnut, the Pennsylvania Bible Society is housed in a four-story, two-bay brownstone Italianate, built in 1799 and altered around 1865.

Next door is another four-story Italianate commercial building with a neo-Colonial doorway built in 1865. And next to that, at 705 Walnut, is a 3 1/2-story Flemish brick Federal rowhouse designed by Benjamin Latrobe and built about 1800.

But when Stein looks out those north-facing windows, his eyes are distracted by the colorful lights with ads for Penn Medicine, Dunkin' Donuts and United Healthcare.

'Next to a drive-in'

"You can't imagine how it destroys any sense of relaxation of being at home, with having this constant projected light," Stein said. "It's like living next to a drive-in.

"My first reaction was: How could this slip under the radar of regulators? How could somebody not know what they were doing to this historic district?"

He said he was "absolutely dumbstruck" to learn that the billboards were part of a "deliberate plan" approved by the City Planning Commission and the Historical Commission.

Stein called the digital signs a "transfer of wealth," and accused the city of taking money out of his pockets and giving it to the owners of the Lits building.

"I'm confident that I cannot sell my apartment today for nearly as much as I paid for it," he said.

A 10th-floor condo in the Ayer was listed for sale in 2013 at $4.95 million.

City officials said they created the Market East Advertising District, on Market Street from 7th to 13th, to encourage property owners to use advertising revenue to invest in their buildings on what has been a declining, dismal street scene for decades.

Former Councilman Frank DiCicco and current mayoral candidate Jim Kenney introduced the bill permitting the signs.

Work is underway to expand the digital ads on the Lits roof at 7th and Market. Scaffolding is up to put another set of 14-foot-high digital billboards at 8th and Market.

When completed, the Lits rooftop signs will stretch 70 feet north along both 7th and 8th streets and an additional 75 feet along Market. They are turned on between about 6 a.m. and midnight.

"When the second sign goes up," Stein said, "it'll be like looking at IMAX in stereo."

He has to pull down a blackout shade to fully block the signs, but then his condo looks as if it has no windows, he said.

Mark Merlini, a principal of Brickstone Realty, one of the companies that own the Lits building, did not return several phone calls seeking comment.

Anne Kelly, Squilla's chief of staff, said the councilman's staff has been in touch with Merlini to make sure that the signs conform to regulations with regard to dimming at night.

Part of a city plan

Deputy Mayor Alan Greenberger said the signs were approved as part of an economic-development plan.

"This was a way to give some incentive to building owners in redeveloping Market Street," Greenberger said.

He said the city will enforce regulations governing the brightness of the signs.

Brickstone has pledged to spend $10 million to improve the building and the subway concourse as part of the agreement to have the advertising, in addition to the nearly $10 million it spent on the billboards, Greenberger said.

"People are living in the middle of the fifth-largest city in the United States," Greenberger said. "There's going to be a certain level of brightness, and a digital sign is obviously a brighter element."

About a dozen residents met in Allan Stein's condo last week to talk about the signs. Residents said it was hard to read or watch television with the lights shining into their homes.

On a quiet Sunday morning at 6:30, Barbara Lewis said, lights are shining in her kitchen.

"They're intrusive," she said. "It's the nature of digital signs. You cannot look away from them. It's the brightness and the constant changing. That's what they're designed to do."