City billboard dispute a sign of things to come

Russell Street fight ends, but larger aesthetic issue continues to be debated

February 19, 2002|By Jamie Stiehm | Jamie Stiehm,SUN STAFF

A fight over whether to remove 11 billboards on Russell Street ended last week before it ever really began, but the issues raised by city officials still loom as large as the signs themselves.

M.J. "Jay" Brodie, president of Baltimore Development Corp., raised questions that went beyond the usual refrain of outdoor advertising as a visual blight on the landscape. Seasoned local activists against billboards said it was the first time they could remember a high-ranking city official declaring that "a forest of billboards" could discourage tourism and obstruct economic development in a city desperately counting on both.

"I've always believed billboards are a deterrent to investment," Brodie said in an interview. "Seventy-foot billboards are not going to persuade people to invest in new quality architecture. This is the primary gateway coming from the beautiful Baltimore-Washington Parkway, which has no billboards. We should show visitors billboards are not part of the scene."

Brodie made his comments before the city dropped its opposition to the billboards rather than risk a legal fight that could jeopardize an urban renewal plan in an area near the signs. Whether the city resumes the challenge may depend on the outcome of a possible appellate-level court battle between Montgomery County and the billboard industry over the last few dozen signs remaining in that jurisdiction.

Given the debate in Salt Lake City, the issue could arise in the context of the joint Baltimore-Washington, D.C., bid to play host to the 2012 Summer Olympics.

"Most of [Salt Lake City] is off-limits to new billboards. There are [Olympics] organizers who think they detract from the vista and those who think there should be a certain amount of advertising for sponsors," said Lynn H. Pace, deputy attorney for Salt Lake City. "There's pressure from all sides."

Pace said restrictions on building new billboards have been in place for about 10 years, but they were not changed for the Olympic Games. In Baltimore, a freeze on all billboard construction was signed into law by Mayor Martin O'Malley in 2000.

Russell Street is a critical gateway because it's used by many tourists, convention-goers and other visitors who fly into Baltimore-Washington International Airport, and by fans who attend Orioles and Ravens games.

"Billboards make a palpable difference in the way people see the city, especially for the first time," Brodie said. Although the northern approach along Interstate 83 also is dotted with billboards, it's more apt to have commuters and less likely to have first-time visitors, Brodie said.

The six-block corridor of Russell Street targeted by the BDC runs over a viaduct and then into a crush of advertising signs for sponsors such as Smyth jewelry, the financial firm Legg Mason, Verizon Wireless, airlines and automobiles such as Hyundai.

One sign, canary yellow, promotes the virtues of abstinence.

Fred Lazarus, president of the Maryland Institute College of Art, said that aside from Times Square and a few other examples of aesthetically exciting advertising, he found the billboard industry surprisingly unsupervised and free to do what it wishes to add or detract from the environment.

"They have no architectural reviews and no governmental controls whatsoever," he said.

Stanley S. Fine, a lawyer representing the Baltimore billboard industry, challenged the latest arguments. "If you go to Salt Lake City now, the first thing you see are billboards," he said yesterday. "Billboards encourage tourism. The National Aquarium is advertised on one."

As for Brodie's concerns about economic development, Fine said a recent study in Tampa, Fla., showed that property values had gone up in areas with billboards on the streetscape. Also, he added, "They are a well-used medium by local business."

On aesthetics, Fine said that on Russell Street and elsewhere, billboards can be "creative and pleasing-looking," especially if they brighten a drab urban backdrop of wires and poles.

Still, Brodie criticized the billboards on Russell Street as offensive to the beholder's eye.

"Bombarded is a good word," Brodie said of the structures - some lighted and with two sides - that reach high in the sky.

BDC's stand against the 11 billboards drew support last month from Scenic America, a national nonprofit group that tracks billboard issues. Tom Pelikan, director of policy for the advocacy group, made a pitch similar to Brodie's at a City Council hearing late last month.

"Imagine walking into a house that a friend has been restoring for the first time," said Pelikan, commenting on the impact of the billboards on a visitor. "Imagine seeing the pride of the fine woodworking ... the brass or pewter lighting fixtures. ... Now imagine seeing a big sign advertising his plumbing supply shop. ... Sort of takes the shine off the visit, doesn't it?"

Baltimore is considered to be in the vanguard of cities that stared the billboard industry down during the 1990s, when a citywide coalition campaigned successfully for a ban on alcohol and tobacco advertising that withstood Supreme Court review.

"Baltimore's one of the cities we point to with a great deal of pride," Pelikan said.

A handful of city governments are striking a tone of anti-billboard activism, Pelikan said, with proposals on a billboard freeze or tax under consideration in Toledo, Ohio, and Los Angeles.

Closer to Baltimore, Montgomery County officials expressed disappointment at the city's retreat. But the county might try to have a state Court of Special Appeals' decision overturned that gave a billboard company the right to challenge the constitutionality of the county's ban on billboards.

For county officials, the ban is "meant to address visual blight," said Clifford Royalty, associate county attorney.

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