This project could come to the Main Line. Is it a monument or a billboard?
"That intersection is incredibly dangerous as it is," one resident said of the Route 252-Lancaster Avenue junction where an electronic billboard has been proposed.
Folks at the advertising company call it a monument, complete with a reflecting pool, flowers and plants that will change with the season, fancy lettering to spell out "Tredyffrin," and the township seal.
The proposed structure is an electronic billboard, albeit a well-appointed one. The design plan centers on two bright screens that would rotate advertisements and public service announcements at a busy four-way intersection in Chester County.
Several times a day, Caroline Ellison traverses that Route 252-Lancaster Pike junction, about a mile from her Berwyn home. The last few weeks, the 51-year-old has envisioned what the Paoli intersection would look like with the ornate electronic sign on the corner. The structure was proposed last month, prompting hundreds of residents like Ellison to push back.
"That intersection is incredibly dangerous as it is," Ellison said.
In recent years, electronic billboards have been appearing near roadways across the region, sometimes to neighbors' dismay. Catalyst Outdoor Advertising, the company behind the Paoli plan, has erected them in Philadelphia and the suburbs . Catalyst officials said they try to design structures that are town-specific and can serve as communication tools. If there are going to be billboards in a community anyway, they argue, why not make them more attractive?
Attractive, however, is in the eye of the beholder. In 2014, after trying to build an electronic billboard in Phoenixville, the company challenged the borough's zoning ordinance in court and lost. Last year, during the construction of a multi-faced digital sign in Quakertown, more than 2,500 residents petitioned for its removal, arguing that the structure would look "tacky" and lead to accidents. (The sign was built anyway).
The most recent debate, in Tredyffrin Township, began Sept. 17 when Thaddeus Bartkowski, founding partner of Newtown Square-based Catalyst, presented plans for a 20-foot-tall electronic structure on a tract now occupied by a clock repair shop and a traditional Catalyst billboard.
The new sign would be far more attractive, Bartkowski said, than the "rectangle on a pole" that many associate with outdoor advertising. He said the structure would serve as a "gateway" to the township, and would set Tredyffrin apart from often-homogeneous suburbs nationwide.
"It reinforces a sense of place," Bartkowski said. "If you go into suburban America, I can drop you down in the middle of suburban Nebraska or suburban Philadelphia — it's hard to tell which is suburban Philadelphia."
Pattye Benson, president of the Tredyffrin Historic Preservation Trust, was against the plan from the start.
She said, "I remember thinking to myself, 'This seems like such a ridiculous thing, it'll just surface and then go away.' "
But it didn't.
So Benson started a petition that drew more than 2,200 signatures, and created a GoFundMe to raise money for lawn signs. Benson said she hopes her efforts will dissuade the township from green-lighting the project.
At a second board meeting earlier this month, Bartkowski and township officials heard from several neighbors who supported Catalyst's plan.
"I've seen what these guys do in other places," Scott Case told the board, "and I think it would be a giant improvement for that corner to have a 'gateway' to [Routes] 252 and 30."
Another resident, Ed Sweeney, added: "I think it would be a great way for people to identify with our township."
Critics said they worry that the rotating advertisements will distract drivers.
"If they're staring at a billboard and see a green light out of the corner of their eye, they're not going to see a person turning," Ellison said.
"If [billboards] are on an interstate, they're far less invasive," Benson said.
Benson said she also does not want to see the Clockworks building, built to resemble an 18th-century toll house, demolished, noting that the site was included in a 2003 historic resource survey.
In response to concerns, Bartkowski cited local and national studies that show traffic accidents do not increase after electronic signage is installed. He said the Clockworks building was constructed in 1948, and does not meet the criteria to be on the National Register of Historic Places.
Ultimately, the project's future lies in the hands of the township — and perhaps a judge.
Last month, Catalyst sued Tredyffrin, contending that its zoning was too restrictive. The lawsuit would have to be resolved before the sign could be built.
Solicitor Vincent Donohue said township policy barred him from discussing pending litigation.
"If the township is to settle this," he said, "there will be time for residents to offer their opinion."
Former Concord Township Supervisor Kevin O'Donoghue said he saw resistance when Catalyst presented ideas for an electronic billboard in his town several years ago.
"I was against the billboard, like many people," he said. But "it's the future of signage, you're going to see it more and more."
As time passed, O'Donoghue said, he came to see its benefits, particularly in helping officials communicate with residents.
In Paoli, Catalyst would pay $1.2 million to build the structure and would maintain it. Between flashes of electronic advertising, the township could display public service messages, once every two minutes.
"It's up to the board of Tredyffrin to decide what's best for the community," Bartkowski said. "We believe the monument is the better option."