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SEPTA's giant ad plans

The agency wants to wrap two stories of its building.

A photo taken by SCRUB, a group opposing building-wrapped ads, shows the SEPTA building with the lower floors covered by an ad that was put up last year without permission. It was later removed.
A photo taken by SCRUB, a group opposing building-wrapped ads, shows the SEPTA building with the lower floors covered by an ad that was put up last year without permission. It was later removed.Read more

To those in the industry it is the "fastest-growing form of advertising behind the Internet," the way advertisers can "break through the clutter" and "separate themselves from the crowd."

To scenic conservationists like Kevin Fry, president of Scenic America, it is "visual kudzu swarming over the city."

From the people who brought you advertising-wrapped SEPTA buses now comes the wrapped building.

SEPTA and Titan Outdoor, its contractor that sells ad space on SEPTA vehicles, stations and Trailpasses, have asked city zoning officials for permission to wrap roughly two stories of SEPTA's office building at 1234 Market St. - ad space almost a football field long.

SEPTA says the space - 16 by 280 feet, 4,480 square feet - would yield revenue that otherwise would come from riders.

"We try to do something tasteful," SEPTA spokesman Jim Whitaker said. "But basically we're trying to make some money for the operating budget without adding to our current fare increases."

But neighborhood leaders say that adding the equivalent of five I-95 billboards on the front of one of Center City's most prominent addresses - across from the Convention Center, between the Loew's Hotel (formerly PSFS) and Macy's (formerly John Wanamaker) - is the last thing shopworn Market Street East needs.

"They are selling the public space," said Mary Cawley Tracy, president of SCRUB - the Society Created to Reduce Urban Blight. "They think they can stick ads wherever they can just to make a few more bucks."

Ruthanne Madway, executive director of the East of Broad Improvement Association, said the proposed ad wrap "flies in the face of everything we tried to do the last few years."

SEPTA earned $10 million last year from advertising. That's just 2 percent of revenue in a $427.5 million budget, but when you're facing a $130 million deficit, every million counts.

In fact, Whitaker said, ad revenue is "increasingly important to mass-transit companies. The state has asked us to consider other revenue streams."

Whitaker said he could not say how much revenue a building wrap might raise because it would hurt Titan's negotiating leverage with potential advertisers.

But the amount would be significant. According to Patrick B. Gillespie Jr., president of Shannon Outdoor Advertising of Newtown Square, ad space the size of the proposed wrap at 1234 Market could produce $35,000 to $45,000 monthly.

For years, SEPTA ad space was limited to ceiling cards on its vehicles and billboards at stations and platforms.

Then modern high-resolution photography and printing enabled advertisers to wrap entire vehicles with their message, an idea that took hold at cash-strapped transit agencies, including SEPTA.

Not everyone has been enamored of the idea.

In November, Seattle's Metropolitan King County Council unanimously eliminated ad wraps covering windows on buses - forfeiting $700,000 a year - citing rider complaints about dark bus interiors.

"Building wraps" are not new, as anyone who has visited New York's Times Square or Las Vegas can attest. But that hasn't made them any less controversial - even in New York.

Scenic America's Fry calls it a "struggle for the control of the public realm. . . . It completely dominates the streetscape, and I think that's a tragedy. . . . People don't come to Philadelphia for the advertisements."

At home watching TV, Fry said, "people are doing everything they can to push advertising away. The advertisers literally have to stalk us on the streets, that's how desperate they are."

Philadelphia's zoning code has banned building wraps in the C-4 and C-5 commercial zones - including Market Street between City Hall and Independence Mall - since 1991.

That hasn't always stopped property owners or advertisers.

For years, the building at 726 Market St., a blank wall 62 feet wide and 100 feet tall over the Eighth Street entrance to the Market-Frankford Subway Elevated Line, became the canvas for a Nike ad featuring Temple coach and women's basketball legend Dawn Staley and an Absolut vodka ad featuring Benjamin Franklin.

The property owner, the estate of Samuel Rappaport, and Outdoor Works sought a variance on hardship grounds when "diligent efforts" to lease the nine-story building failed.

Though the Zoning Board of Adjustment granted the variance in 2000, its decision was reversed after being challenged by SCRUB, the Center City Residents Association, and City Councilman David Cohen, who has since died.

In September 2003, Commonwealth Court ruled that a property owner's financial hardship did not justify a variance for the large outdoor ad. Ben Franklin and the vodka ad came down in May 2004.

SEPTA and Titan Outdoor put up a building wrap at 1234 Market last year - a Dunkin' Donuts ad - without permission.

Workers at Citizens Bank, a tenant at street level in the SEPTA building, began to be queried by passersby who wandered into the building about where they could find the nonexistent Dunkin' Donuts.

The ad came down after two months but not before Dunkin' Donuts put up a sign in the window telling pedestrians where they could buy their cup of joe and crullers. Whitaker said SEPTA got few complaints about the building wrap.

This year, SEPTA and Titan came back and asked the Zoning Board of Adjustment for a financial-hardship variance.

SCRUB and the East of Broad Improvement Association filed objections, joined by Citizens Bank, which apparently decided a huge ad above its branch could as easily promote a competitor as doughnuts.

In addition to citing the wrap's proximity to Citizens Bank's own sign, lawyer Frank A. Mayer 3d wrote in his objection letter that city approval would be "spot zoning" and would "excessively commercialize this neighborhood and render it a clone of New York City's Times Square."

The zoning board was to have heard the appeal Wednesday, but Sharon Suletta, attorney for Titan Outdoor, asked for a continuance, saying she was not prepared for Citizens Bank's sudden opposition.

Zoning board chairman David L. Auspitz was angered by another delay, and his mood did not improve when Suletta floated the idea of letting SEPTA-Titan put up the building wrap for a "one-year trial."

"Forget about that," Auspitz snapped. "What, is it snowing blue outside?"

Auspitz set a new hearing for 1 p.m. June 13 and warned that if SEPTA or Titan again sought a continuance, "the application will be dismissed."