Billboard company Outfront Media Inc. is said to have resumed seeking support to build a digital sign on land hugging West Fairmount Park beside the Schuylkill Expressway, a plan critics have said would mar one of Philadelphia’s most prized open spaces.
Alex Doty, executive director of the Philadelphia Parks Alliance, said Outfront representatives met with him recently to press their case for legislation that would permit the double-faced digital billboard to rise on property now zoned as parkland.
Outfront representatives either declined to comment or did not respond to questions.
The outreach comes about a year-and-a-half after Council member Curtis Jones Jr. withdrew a bill he had introduced that would have permitted the digital sign’s installation. It was vocally opposed by the Parks Alliance and other open-space advocates.
Jones’ district includes the proposed new billboard site, a narrow strip of riverfront land co-owned by railway operator CSX Corp. across the expressway from West Fairmount Park between the Strawberry Mansion Bridge and Montgomery Drive.
His legislation would have changed that property’s zoning from its current designation for parks and open space, where billboards are prohibited, to an industrial designation, where they are allowed.
It also would have exempted the land from city rules outlawing billboards near parks and historic sites to allow for a “double-faced … digital advertising sign” there.
The bill was prompted by Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia’s wish for the removal of an existing waterfront billboard near its pediatric research tower along the Schuylkill River Trail beside the South Street Bridge. The metal-framed rear of that sign obstructs views of the river from that building’s windows.
Doty of the Parks Alliance said he was told that the park-adjacent location for the new sign was selected through a deal with CSX, which once owned the property where the current billboard stands and continues to earn rent from Outfront due to an easement that was granted for that billboard when the land was sold.
But moving the sign would also mean a big upgrade for Outfront, since its current sign is a conventional billboard with a single unchanging image meant to be viewed from the expressway across the Schuylkill, while the new one would be a double-sided digital model directly beside that busy road.
Doty said he was visited about two weeks ago by Barbara Bridge, Outfront’s real estate and government affairs director for the Philadelphia area, and Alan Kessler, a lawyer with the law firm Duane Morris who is representing the billboard company.
The two contended that the Parks Alliance and other opponents of Jones’ earlier legislation had misunderstood the character of the land where Outfront wanted to build its new digital installation, Doty said.
Critics mistakenly believed the land to be a continuation of Fairmount Park’s green space when it is actually an industrial strip traversed by rail tracks, he recalled Bridge and Kessler as saying.
Doty said it had been his understanding that the two were seeking to drum up support for the billboard among its past critics in hopes of clearing the way for Jones to reintroduce his legislation.
The Parks Alliance has not yet decided whether to reconsider its past position, he said, but its board agreed to tour the proposed location of the digital displays in the coming weeks.
“There’s some benefit to removing the billboard from [along the Schuylkill River Trail] and some detriment to putting it somewhere else," he said. “That’s basically what we’re weighing.”
Outfront’s Bridge declined to answer questions about her company’s recent outreach, saying remarks would come from a spokesperson from whom no response has come. Kessler did not respond to a phone message.
Jones’ chief of staff Joshua Cohen said the Council member has “no intention to move the bill at this point.” Children’s Hospital spokesperson Emily DiTomo said the hospital “is not engaged in any advocacy on this issue at this time.”
Fairmount Park Conservancy spokesperson Sharene Azimi declined to comment on whether the group has been approached again by Outfront representatives, citing its plans to soon announce a new executive director.
The group’s previous leader, Jamie Gauthier, is running unopposed in next month’s general election to represent the City Council district in West Philadelphia where the current sign now stands.
Gauthier, who was not aware of Outfront’s recent outreach, said that her position toward the proposal has not changed, but that she has sympathy for her soon-to-be Children’s Hospital constituents.
“I don’t object to them trying to move it. I do object to where they want to move it to," she said. “I thought it was a bad idea last year when it came up, and I think it’s a bad idea now."