A small stretch of land near Pennypack Park along State Road may soon be home to an electronic billboard. A City Council committee voted last Tuesday to rezone the land, which is owned by the Redevelopment Authority, in order to put the sign along I-95.
The final vote will occur Thursday, but it is almost certain that it will pass. The package of two bills, sponsored by Councilman Bobby Henon, rezone the land so that the billboard can be placed there, and then create exceptions to regulations regarding proximity to other billboards (there’s one across the street).
While it isn’t directly in the park, the small piece of land is directly adjacent to the park, across from Pennypack Creek. Some residents are pretty upset over the proximity. Michael McGettigan, who owns Trophy Bikes, said that “billboards are the walking dead,” meaning that they are bordering on irrelevancy since most people get their media from mobile devices and computers.
The billboard will also be distracting, figures McGettigan. He flashed a bike light in the eyes of the Council to demonstrate his point during last week’s hearing.
On the other hand, Henon said the section of land that will house the billboard is not currently in use. It isn’t accessible from the Pennypack trail, and it’s mostly paved over. “It’s dead space,” said Jolene Nieves Byzon, Henon’s director of communications. By putting the billboard here, Henon hopes to generate tax revenue that can be redistributed to the community. They don’t expect much (the average billboard provides around $1,200 per year), but Byzon pointed out that a little bit of revenue is better than nothing.
Also, Henon’s office said the back of the electronic billboard will be to the park, reducing the light pollution that parkgoers will experience.
That wasn’t enough to assuage Mary Tracy, the executive director of Scenic Philadelphia. She called the bills “shortsighted,” and said they set a dangerous precedent for placing billboards or other advertisements near public spaces. Scenic Philadelphia brought people to the initial Council hearing on Tuesday, and will likely be present at the final vote.
Aside from the obstruction of the view for parkgoers, there is also a concern about the brightness of the billboard distracting drivers. These concerns aren’t unfounded; some recent studies have shown that electronic billboards hold drivers’ attention longer than normal street signs.
“We have these buffers for a reason,” said Tracy, referring to the distance that the billboards can be from parks and roads.
The state government — specifically PennDOT — has jurisdiction to regulate all billboards and signage alongside interstate highways, and it has to approve any new signs that are put up. PennDOT allows electronic signs, as long as they don’t have animation, flash, or appear to move. Still, the agency can reject a billboard based on size, proximity to other billboards, and other criteria.