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The Bright Side of Blight

January 24, 2011

EVEN in Philadelphia, with its 40,000 vacant properties and a quarter of its population living below the poverty line, the Kensington neighborhood still shocks. On a frigid afternoon, a prostitute lingers in the shadow of the elevated train tracks, waiting restlessly for customers. Husks of long-closed factories stand amid thigh-high winter wheat. Streams of garbage flow down the streets, as if both the people and the city government had agreed to forsake the effort of propriety.

In recent months, this neighborhood has also been terrorized by a killer who choked and raped his victims in the area’s ubiquitous abandoned houses and vacant lots. If only these deserted places could be charged as accomplices to the so-called Kensington Strangler’s three murders and two sexual assaults, and for aiding and abetting the drug use and prostitution that have caused so many of the neighborhood’s problems. But the empty lots with their discarded furniture and ghetto kudzu and the weather-beaten houses with boarded-up windows won’t be going anywhere soon.

It’s been nearly 30 years since James Q. Wilson and George L. Kelling published their broken windows theory, positing that the torn social fabric that allows for vandalism also encourages other kinds of crime and disinvestment in a neighborhood. The theory validated the inclination to improve the built environment first, in the hopes that once a sense of confidence has been restored other aspects of an engaged community will follow. And in places on the cusp of gentrification or economic recovery, like certain New York areas in the ’90s, quality-of-life campaigns have been proven to clean up the streets and reduce crime.

Indeed, as gentrification has slowly crept northward in Philadelphia, Kensington residents have gained some hope from a newly branded arts corridor, a few rejuvenated parks and street improvements, all thanks to the efforts of an invaluable local community development corporation. But this scattershot approach has failed to create the kind of holistic change needed in this neighborhood — or its counterparts in St. Louis, Cleveland, Detroit and Baltimore.

Many cities have also sought to transform undeveloped lots into green space and urban agriculture. It’s a natural fit and, again, in Kensington a full city block has been converted from an industrial brownfield to an admirably active farm. But land-based strategies that try to reinvent this vacant lot or that blighted ground do little to stem the larger social trends that created the spatial problem in the first place.

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Bill 100552

Wednesday, 01 December 2010 00:14 Mikhael
City Council will soon consider Bill 100552, which would allow the construction of a six story digital sign as part of a hotel complex in Old City. The proposed sign would be located on a building directly facing drivers traveling into Philadelphia on the Ben Franklin Bridge, an already challenging driving environment.

Bill 100552 deletes the provisions in Philadelphia’s sign control laws that have protected this area of our city from a proliferation of outdoor advertising signs, including digital and full motion video signs, for over 20 years.

Bill 100552 ignores the findings of traffic safety studies that have led other cities such as Houston, St. Louis, Denver, and Los Angeles to place a moratorium or total prohibition on digital billboards.

Bill 100552 also does not incorporate the City’s goals of sustainability since digital billboards are huge energy consumers. In fact, one 1200 square foot digital sign uses more energy than 30 homes. While Philadelphia is working hard to reduce its carbon footprint, the City will remain far from its goal of being the greenest city in America if it allows the proliferation of this energy guzzling technology.

The developer of Franklin Place claims this project cannot be successful without the digital sign. We believe that driver safety, community preservation, aesthetics and energy conservation should trump a poorly designed business plan.

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Court Allows Citizens 3 Minutes of Testimony at City Council Meetings

Thanks to a recent Supreme Court ruling, Philadelphia residents’ voices can be heard loud and clear if they choose to stand up against the recent “Billboard Bills”(Bill 100552, Bill 100553, and Bill 100720). The ruling provides clear guidelines with regards to who give public comment at council hearings as well as the various other aspects to the process.

The hearings for the above bills have been put on hold, giving the community time to galvanize its efforts to protest this blatant attempt to proliferate billboards and other outdoor advertisement in the city. Below are the deatails of the new guidelines for public commenting procedures at city council hearings:

  • Who may speak: Comments may be offered by Philadelphia residents or taxpayers. No proof of eligibility will be required.
  • In what order: The Chief Clerk of Council will maintain a list of those wishing to speak, and speakers will be heard in the order in which they sign up. To add your name, call the Chief Clerk’s office at 215-686-3410 or 215-686-3411. If you have not called to sign up by 5 pm on the Wednesday before the Council session, you should sign up in Room 400 City Hall before the Council session starts. However, no one will be denied the opportunity to provide public comment because they have not signed up in advance.
  • When: There will be a single public comment period, which will occur immediately before Council votes on bills and resolutions.
  • For how long: Each speaker will have 3 minutes. However, the Council President reserves the right based on circumstances to establish a different time limit. The Council President may also limit repetitious comments in order to enable Council to conduct its meeting.
  • About what: Speakers may comment on any of the bills or resolutions that are on Council’s Calendar (also known as the Agenda) for possible action at that day’s Council session, even if those items are not actually called up for a vote. This consists of any items on the “Final Passage” and “Second Reading and Final Passage” sections of the Calendar.
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Billboards in the ‘Burbs 2.0

Billboards are a hot topic in suburbia too.  Several Delaware County communities have been fighting billboards and a company known as Bartkowski Investment Group or B.I.G for over a year now.  Like the other major outdoor advertisement companies, they want to erect some big billboards in Delaware County. One of the Delco Communities not taking this lying down is Haverford Township.The first billboard hearing in Haverford Township was May 2009, and the hearings have not yet concludedwith the case still being heard by Haverford Township’s Zoning Hearing Board.

In Haverford Township, the battle has been quite heated and neighboring municipality of Lower Merion Township has been involved as well due to the fact that the signage proposed for Bryn Mawr in Haverford Township is directly across the road (Lancaster Avenue) from Lower Merion Township and visible to its residents.  Suffice it to say, just like their more urban neighbors, suburban residents are exercising their rights to say “no” to billboards and fight for their communities.

Haverford Township demonstrating the height of potential billboards.

Residents have a duty to be involved in issues that affect their communities.  The bottom line is simple: people have a right to have opinions contrary to the legal cases in favor of billboards that attorneys put forth to support the billboard cause.  After all, the First Amendment is a two-way street: billboard owners use it as a defense in favor of erecting billboards, and residents have the right to exercise their First Amendment rights in opposition to the visual blight that  are billboards. And remember, four states in this country prohibit billboards: Alaska, Hawaii, Maine, and Vermont.  In addition, two other states, Rhode Island and Oregon have prohibited the construction of new billboards. For further information on the Delaware County Billboards fight, please visit:

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Bridesburg Community Battles Billboard Blight


At 4855 James Street, in addition to the adult video store and spaces for parking, there is a double-sided piggy-back billboard  with a total of four sign faces. The owner, Risque Video,

applied for a variance to replace this nonconforming billboard structure to an LED digital billboard whose bright glaring messages will flash and change at 4 to 6 second intervals shining into the homes of several nearby neighbors and a church.

Due to prohibitions against rebuilding nonconforming billboards and putting signs with intermittent and flashing lights within 1,000 feet of residences (14-1604(8)b), the city refused the owner’s request for a permit.

The owner applied for a variance and appeared before the Zoning Board of Adjustment (ZBA) on April 6.Despite the failure for the owner to show any evidence of hardship the board granted the variance.

Scenic Philadelphia staff found a petition opposing the sign in the file from neighbors living within 500 feet who were directly, adversely and substantially impacted. The Baptist Worship Center, located directly across the street from the billboards was also opposed. Scenic Philadelphia recruited a volunteer attorney, Judge Hall, to represent the church and the residents and he filed an appeal to the Court of Common Pleas.

Risque Video, filed a motion to quash on the grounds that the parties had no had standing to appeal the matter.  Scenic Philadelphia, The Baptist Worship Center and the neighbors filed an answer to the motion to quash, and the court held a motion hearing on Wednesday, August 4th at City Hall, 10:00 in Room 426.

Judge Idee Fox ruled in favor of the church, neighbors, and SCRUB, agreeing with Attorney Hall that the zoning notice had been improperly posted.She remanded the case back to the ZBA for a full hearing.

Upcoming Bridesburg Billboard Case:Owners of the towering 110 foot billboard that stands adjacent to Risque’s billboard is also seeking a variance to rebuild the sign structure.The ZBA hearing on this case is August 18 at 2:00, 1515 Arch Street, 18th Floor.

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Pa. asking feds to allow ads on highway signs

The Associated Press: Updated: 07/03/2010 02:05:52 PM EDT

 HARRISBURG, Pa.—Electronic signs along state highways that warn drivers of accidents, traffic jams and construction could be pitching them products if state officials get their way.

Pennsylvania has joined California and Florida in asking the federal government to allow the sale of advertising on electronic highway signs to generate money to fix roads and bridges.

The Pennsylvania Department of Transportation says the advertising could generate $150 million annually for each state. But traffic safety advocates argue that the ads could distract drivers and pose a road hazard.

The states are asking the Federal Highway Administration to waive several regulations that bar advertisements on overhead and roadside changeable signs. States would contract with private companies to upgrade and maintain the electronic signs, The Patriot-News of Harrisburg said, citing an application it had obtained.

If the waivers are granted by the federal government, state lawmakers would need to sign off on the plan because Pennsylvania law also bars commercial advertising on traffic signs. The state could begin a pilot program to test the idea if the Legislature approves that.

The Pennsylvania Turnpike allows ads on tollbooth windows and ticket machines that generated about $519,000 last year, said Carl DeFebo, a spokesman for the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission. Advertising has been permitted on tollbooths along the 545 miles of highway since 2000.

Safety organizations say the electronic signs are risky.

“They can be distracting,” said Fairley Mahlum, a spokeswoman for the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety. “Most of the current concern centers around some of the new technology that is being used for signs, especially the ones that are big that use very bright LED lights that often change. Something like that could be very distracting.”

Mary Tracy, president of the nonprofit Scenic America, which aims to preserve roadside scenery, said electronic message boards should be identified as a distraction like cell phones.