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Business & Developmentby Fern Shen8:26 amOct 18, 20210

Downtown residents association: We were blindsided by digital billboard plan

Up for a City Council vote tonight, a bill that will permit large digital billboards to hang from office buildings and hotels along major streets in the Inner Harbor

Above: “Reference Images” in the Downtown Partnership’s draft plan for the new signage district. (godowntownbaltimore.com)

After years of public advocacy amid industry opposition, Baltimore finally won passage of a billboard moratorium 21 years ago.

The legislation, pushed by the Citizens Planning and Housing Association and approved by the City Council on March 13, 2000, stopped the spread of the billboards cluttering city streets and highways and established a process for reducing the number of existing “general advertising signs” over time.

Since then, the outdoor media industry has tried, with little success, to chip away at the restrictions.

Last year, for example, there was such a public outcry over Brandon Scott’s bill to allow digital billboards along railroad rights-of-way that Scott, then-City Council president, withdrew it. A separate digital billboard bill died in committee.

 Community groups don’t want more billboards, but Scott and Young press ahead (10/5/20)

Scott pulls back bill to permit highway billboards along railroad rights of way (10/13/20)

But in recent months there has been a major makeover campaign.

A new plan – to loosen zoning restrictions and allow large digital billboards to hang from the sides or wrap around the corners of buildings in a special downtown district – has whizzed through city government checkpoints with relatively little public notice.

Introduced in mid-August under the nondescript name of “Area of Special Sign Control,” Bill 21-0118 has secured favorable recommendations from city agencies and is scheduled for a key second reader vote by the City Council tonight.

Video and digital billboards would be an economic “game changer,” adding “energy, vibrancy and walkability” to the central business district now struggling with Covid-induced high vacancies and an exodus by major companies to newer space at Harbor East and Harbor Point.

So says Shelonda Stokes, president of the Downtown Partnership of Baltimore (DPOB), the quasi-public corporation applying for approval of the new district.

Speaking at a City Council committee hearing last week, Stokes said the billboards – to be placed on buildings along Pratt, Lombard, Charles and other major streets – would “create synergy, create place” and benefit “artists and small and minority businesses.”

City sponsored digital billboard program in Denver, which Baltimore studied, draws positive and negative coverage. (Google StreetView)

The digital billboard program in Denver has drawn a mixed reaction. (Google StreetView)

Eric Costello, the councilman who is co-sponsoring the bill with 12th District colleague Robert Stokes, asked at the hearing if the private lawyer testifying on behalf of the Downtown Partnership could recount “for the record” how proper legal notice had been provided.

Alyssa Domzal, one of three Ballard Spahr attorneys registered to lobby on behalf of DPOB, said all affected property owners had been sent letters. Notice, she continued, had also been posted on the DPOB’s “15 double-sided outdoor kiosks” on downtown streets.

Then came the committee vote.

Councilmembers Kristerfer Burnett, Ryan Dorsey, Danielle McCray and Isaac “Yitzy” Schleifer joined Costello and Stokes to unanimously move the billboard legislation to the full Council, after each confirmed they had no questions.

Pandora’s Box

But there were significant questions and concerns raised days before, on October 7, when the bill was before the Planning Commission, along with strong objections about the failure to notify residents.

“My questions are about the motivations for this project and how the city and the public are expected to benefit,” Commission member Eric Stephenson began.

Having read a news story where DPOB’s Stokes was quoted invoking, among other imagery, that of Las Vegas, Stephenson asked, “Can you reassure me with comparisons to other cities?”

Fretting that the new electronic sign district “could be a real Pandora’s box,” Commission Chairman Sean Davis warned that, while he was supporting the first stage of the process, which creates the new district’s boundaries, “I’m going to be a real jerk when it comes to the actual signage plan.”

The strongest comments, however, came from Bill King, interim president of the City Center Residents’ Association (CCRA), the only elected community association representing the thousands of renters who live downtown.

“We think it’s unreasonable to say, ‘Yes, let’s go ahead and carve out the district’ before we fully understand what’s going on here’”  – Bill King, City Center Residents’ Association.

King said that while the building owners – “in many cases out-of-town corporate entities and REITs” – may have gotten notice letters, the renters he represents were blindsided by the billboard plan.

“We were not briefed on anything related to this area of special sign control until last week,” he declared.

King said the group wrote a letter of concern “after knowing about this for four or five days,” but received no reply “until two and a half hours before the start of this hearing.”

“We’re simply not prepared to say we’re okay with this,” King protested, calling the proposal “a red-hot issue” with members and imploring city leaders to pause consideration of the measure.

He was not mollified by assurances that the bill before the committee is limited in scope because it only draws the lines of the district.

“We think it’s unreasonable to say, ‘Yes, let’s go ahead and carve out the district’ before we fully understand what’s going on here,” King said, noting that he’d heard new information at the meeting that “makes your antennas go up.”

“This is essentially a blank check we’re writing here,” he continued.

123 Marietta St NW - Google Maps — Mozilla Firefox 10152021 73508 AM

Digital wall sign (at right) on a street in Atlanta, whose sign district initiative was one of those studied by the the Downtown Partnership of Baltimore.

Billboard-Friendly Districts

The Costello and Stokes bill sets up up a “North Harbor” signage district, extending roughly from President Street on the east to Howard Street on the west, with a bump-out for the Shot Tower near Camden Yards.

Bounded by Baltimore Street on the north, it extends to a southern border formed by Conway, Light and Pratt streets.

The proposed North Harbor special sign district, with billboard locations from the draft design plan indicated in blue. (Downtown Partnership presentation to Planning Commission)

The proposed NoHa signage district in red. The 21 planned billboard locations are indicated in blue, chiefly on office buildings and hotels sited along Pratt and Lombard streets. (Downtown Partnership)

The “NoHa” District, as boosters are calling it, would be the first use of a new provision (pushed by Port Covington’s developers) that allows for the creation of special billboard-friendly districts.

Under the code, the Planning Commission must find that the area will not “increase the likelihood of traffic congestion or distraction,” add to “visual clutter” or be “incongruous with the existing or contemplated design of the area.”

What will be allowed inside “NoHa?”

That’s up to a group of yet-undefined city agencies and stakeholders that is devising a signage plan that must be approved by the Planning Commission.

draft of the plan has already been created. It identifies 14 locations on privately-owned properties where 21 signs would be placed. The plan shows a cluster of them to be placed on Pratt Street between Howard and Calvert streets.

Most are large “Category IV” signs, ranging from 800 to 1,800 square feet.

Shelonda Stokes, president of the Downtown Partnership of Baltimore, testifies before a City Council Committee. (CharmTV)

Shelonda Stokes, named president of the Downtown Partnership last year, testifies before a City Council committee. (CharmTV)

Non-public Agreement

In addition to the sign plan, there is also a separate “service agreement” between DPOB and unnamed “media companies” – a fact that emerged at the meeting, taking King and at least one commission member by surprise.

They were even more surprised – and disturbed – when informed that this document is not going to be made public.

“Any profit-sharing agreement, the city is not going to be party to that, so that is not something that is going to be under review by this body,” city planner Caitlin Audette said.

But isn’t DPOB a public agency, commission member Tom Prevas asked.

“It sounds like there is something behind the scenes, like there’s a private contract that is driving the deal, and I’m not feeling comfortable with it,” Prevas said, asking why the revenue from the program does not flow solely from the city’s billboard tax.

“Something behind the scenes. . . that is driving the deal and I’m not feeling comfortable with it”  – Planning Commissioner Tom Prevas.

“I’d have a concern there’s some side piece to this,” he said.

Domzal asserted that DPOB is a 501(c)3 entity that does not have to disclose agreements with service providers. (Only its separate management entity, she said, is a public body.)

“We had extensive conversations with the Law Department about how this would be structured, and this was [chief solicitor] Hilary Ruley’s recommendation: that any kind of services agreement be completely off the table as far as city approval.”

Billboard display in downtown Atlanta unveiled in 2019 after billboard regulations were relaxed as part of a new program in the Arts & Entertainment District.

Another billboard display in downtown Atlanta in the arts & entertainment district.

Expected Revenues: $300,000

Stokes also declined to release the service agreement, but went as far as describing what her organization is seeking from the media companies “within the agreement.”

“We’re asking them for 15-20% of those billboards to be dedicated to small business, minority business and local artists,” she said.

In addition, she said, DPOB is asking for 1% share of the signage revenues (“for us to maintain and manage a sign all the time”) plus 1% to each of the city’s four arts and entertainment districts (Station North, Highlandtown, Bromo Tower and Pennsylvania Avenue) for a total share of 5% of revenues.

“We’re asking for 15-20% of those billboards to be dedicated to small business, minority business and local artists”  – Shelonda Stokes, Downtown Partnership.

A memo from the Finance Department provides an estimate for anticipated revenue from the new billboards, which would be subject to the city’s $15-per-square-foot tax on electronic outdoor advertising.

Estimating the total square footage from the signs in the plan at 20,227 (the equivalent of a 20-foot-tall band of flashing lights extending over 1,000 feet), the billboards would bring in $303,000 in revenues yearly.

Citywide Advertising Plan

Private companies may negotiate their own agreements with media companies wishing to construct digital on their building facades, while the city would have to conduct an RFP to craft such an agreement for a city-owned building.

In his memo, Budget Director Robert Cenname also signaled that contracts with companies for still more digital signage are in the works.

The Scott administration is “actively pursuing” a “citywide municipal advertising plan, starting with city-owned parking garages, Budget Director Robert Cenname disclosed.

Baltimore is “actively pursuing” a “citywide municipal advertising plan” on city-owned buildings, starting with a pilot plan for advertising on city parking garages, Cenname noted.

He said officials also are looking digital signage on the facade of the Convention Center “supported by a loan for the city’s Innovation Fund”.

billboard locations 1

billboard locations 2

Improperly Posted

The CCRA’s King said he was surprised to learn at the meeting about the Partnership’s closed-door agreement with media companies.

He also was struck by the disclosure that the Planning Department made a mistake, failing to use the proper language in the notices posted in various location in the district.

Audette told the Commission that the notices should have said:

“Any objections to the designation of the area as an Area of Special Signage Control should be given to the director of Planning and the City Council.”

Instead there was only the department’s standard generic language: “To review plans contact the Baltimore City Department of Planning at (410) 396-PLAN.”

Audette recommended that the Commission amend the notice requirement in this case.  She said that since the correct language was used in the letters to property owners, “We believe the intent was met.”

Her reasoning: that the owners are the only members of the public, under the new Zoning Code designation, with specific rights to intervene.

“It is the property owners who can officially object,” she said. “And if 51% object, the Planning Commission cannot approve the item.”

The commission voted unanimously to modify the posting requirement.

“Lipstick on a pig”

And at the end of the session, the commission voted unanimously to recommend approval of the bill to the City Council.

“I think this is a very good idea,” said Commission member Victor Clark Jr., calling objections to the billboards “because ‘I don’t want light in my backroom window’ or ‘I don’t like the name’” wrongheaded.

“That’s like saying we don’t want to be a Venus flytrap because that’s all advertising is,” he said. “It brings people to a position and when they get there, they spend money.”

Since the Planning Commission meeting, proponents have been seeking to reassure their critics, with Stokes saying the billboards will be “aesthetically superior” and stressing the project’s resemblance to special sign districts in Denver and Atlanta.

In an email, Costello has told some constituents that Downtown Partnership promises the digital billboards “will not directly face residential properties” and that will create “a Community Advisory Panel” to give concerned residents a voice.

None of this reassures downtown resident Barbara Valeri, who was skeptical of the claim that the billboards will not be visible from residential dwellings.

“I would like line-of-sight surveys” and a review by the Health Department, she told The Brew.

Valeri said she would rather see the city “fix the roads, mend the sidewalks, get rid of trash and clutter and graffiti,” make downtown safer and focus on other basic upgrades.

“Installing digital billboards feels like we’re trying to put lipstick on a pig,” she said.

 Mark Reutter contributed to this story.

– To reach a reporter – fern.shen@baltimorebrew.com or reuttermark@yahoo.com

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Another Google StreetView image of a billboard created as part of Atlanta’s special sign district.

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