A bill that would create a commercial advertising district in the development dead-zone of Market East passed out of the rules committee Tuesday and appears headed for passage.
The bill, championed by Councilman Frank DiCicco, is intended to spur development along Market Street between Seventh and 13th Streets.
That stretch was once the city's main shopping district, with department stores like Strawbridge & Clothier. But Market East has been in decline for decades despite hosting the Convention Center and being surrounded by vibrant areas like Chinatown and Independence Mall.
"This street has enormous potential . . . but it's a hole in the middle of the doughnut," said Paul Levy, president and chief executive officer of the Center City District. "It needs help."
Under the bill, developers would be allowed to install digital billboards that could be several stories tall on some buildings, but only if they invested at least $10 million in the property, excluding the cost of the signs.
DiCicco hopes the advertising would encourage investment in Market East and "get us back to the day when it was a regional shopping corridor that didn't close at 5 p.m."
Historical preservationists, antibillboard crusaders, and some neighborhood groups have opposed the bill, saying the legislation would change the character of the area without any guarantee of accomplishing its goals.
"This isn't New York, this isn't Hong Kong," said Steve Weixler of the Society Hill Civic Association. "What are the chances this gamble with the cultural heritage in Philadelphia will pay off?"
Most of the significant buildings in Market East are listed on the city's Register of Historic Places, but Levy described eight or nine major parcels as underdeveloped or vacant. The former Gimbel Bros. site has been empty for 34 years.
In his testimony, John Andrew Gallery, executive director of the Preservation Alliance of Greater Philadelphia, said putting large advertising on "historic buildings is inappropriate and would significantly detract from the primary reason visitors come to Philadelphia - that is, to appreciate its historic character."
The bill would have its first reading before Council on Thursday and could be passed on June 16. DiCicco said he has the support to pass it.
Following a hearing that lasted more than seven hours, the Rules Committee also passed a number of bills, including one that would pave the way for Chestnut Hill College to launch a $500 million expansion.
The committee also passed another DiCicco-sponsored bill to rezone a section of the waterfront, north of the SugarHouse Casino in Port Richmond, where Grasso Holdings wants to build a 34,000-square-foot music venue.
The unnamed venue would host up to 3,000 patrons and would be operated by Live Nation. DiCicco believes he has the support to pass that bill as well.
Near the end of the daylong hearing, an actor dressed as William Penn came forward to speak about the Market East advertising bill.
He told the committee, "Whatever they're paying you, it's not enough."