By John J. Connors

In 1986, G. Stockton Strawbridge championed a public-private initiative to transform East Market Street between Sixth Street and City Hall. He formed the Market Street East Improvement Association, a precursor to the Center City District, persuading businesses to voluntarily pay for maintenance, housekeeping, and security in the newly improved district.

The original members of the association included Strawbridge & Clothier, Wanamaker's, Stern's, Rouse Co., PNB, PSFS, Rohm & Haas, and Reading Co. That all those companies are now extinct should not be lost on anyone concerned about the future of East Market Street. Change is inevitable; managing change is critical. The remaining businesses are asking City Council to relax restrictions on signs in the district partly for that reason.

When the Strawbridges sold the family business, the Market East area became part of the Center City District. But the improvement association has continued to coordinate the efforts of owners and developers and to fund special programs and projects.

As the lone remaining founding member and current chairman of the improvement association, I have been involved in the area's affairs since 1986. As a principal of Brickstone Realty, I have played a major role in the redevelopment of more than 3.8 million square feet of Class A commercial property in the district, at a cost of nearly half a billion dollars. Our work included the certified historic rehabilitations of the Wanamaker's and Lit Brothers buildings, and the former City Hall Annex, now a Marriott.

The Lit Brothers and Wanamaker's projects both won prestigious preservation awards. Ironically, though, they would not have been possible under the secretary of the interior's guidelines at the time. We argued that if these properties were going to survive, they had to be able compete in the modern marketplace. So the guidelines were amended.

The bill now before City Council would create a special advertising district allowing large-format digital signs on East Market Street between Seventh and 13th Streets. Crafted with the input of major Market East interests, including PREIT-Rubin, SSH Real Estate, and Brickstone Realty, it was carefully structured to limit the location of such signs, their size, and even their content. It is far more restrictive than comparable ordinances in New York, Boston, and Toronto, and it was designed to enable a historic street to keep up with 21st-century realities.

Strawbridge dreamed of Market Street as a grand commercial boulevard - a Champs-Élysées for Philadelphia. Before you snicker, let me remind you that at the time, the Lit Brothers building, the Reading Terminal Headhouse, the PSFS building, One East Penn Square, and the City Hall Annex were vacant hulks, and Wanamaker's was on its way. Today, all are trophy assets and sources of civic pride.

But the work on East Market Street is only half done. The rejuvenation of these buildings was made possible in large part by the availability of federal tax credits for such projects. The rest of the properties in the district are not so blessed and will have to be redeveloped by other means.

Creating the advertising district would be a big step in that direction. Market Street has historically been Philadelphia's prime retail district. In its heyday, large-format signs dominated it; Lit Brothers featured a rooftop sign more than 600 feet long and 16 feet high. Now some are objecting to such signs on historic buildings, forgetting that the great structures were made possible by thriving enterprises. Are these buildings forever banned from the digital age?

The district would benefit greatly from this legislation, which would create a more vibrant environment for visitors and residents alike. Those of us who have invested our time and treasure on East Market Street for 21/2 decades are simply asking for the tools to finish the job.