Planning vote opens door to lifting billboard freeze

Large signs would be put at 1st Mariner Arena

conditions would apply

January 10, 2003|By Scott Calvert | Scott Calvert,SUN STAFF

Fifteen Times Square-inspired billboards, some more than four stories high, could soon blanket the 1st Mariner Arena in Baltimore. While advocates say the ads would brighten downtown, critics worry the city-owned arena could look trashy.

The city Planning Commission endorsed the plan 7-1 yesterday. The City Council still must approve any changes to a citywide billboard freeze passed in 2000, but Mayor Martin O'Malley and Council President Sheila Dixon support an exception in this case.

The commission called for certain conditions, including the elimination of 14 billboards around the city and the creation of design guidelines. Neon signs would be permitted, though ads could not blink, move or feature video animation.

In addition, a 45-by-54-foot sign facing Howard Street would be reserved for public service announcements of O'Malley's choice.

The billboards are being pushed by Edwin F. Hale Sr., who owns the Baltimore Blast soccer team. Its home field is the newly renamed arena. Hale, chairman of 1st Mariner Bank, says the signs will generate income to help offset his team's financial losses while jazzing up the 40-year-old downtown arena at 201 W. Baltimore St.

Hale won naming rights for the arena under a deal that costs him $75,000 a year for 10 years. The right to put up the billboards will cost him $200,000 a year if he wins council approval.

Opponents tried to persuade the commission to postpone yesterday's vote. Alfred W. Barry III, who leads the Citizens Planning and Housing Association, said members were "abdicating" their responsibility by forging ahead. Among the open questions is which 14 billboards would come down.

The billboard issue has been a contentious one in Baltimore. The CPHA was part of a years-long effort to prohibit new billboards in the city. The ban was the first bill O'Malley signed as mayor.

A business group led by Orioles owner Peter G. Angelos warned that allowing such large-scale advertising on the former Baltimore Arena could harm a $750 million effort to revitalize downtown's west side.

"Lifting the billboard moratorium and saying we're going to create a billboard zone for this area of downtown is a mistake," said Ronald M. Kreitner, executive director of WestSide Renaissance Inc.

Some developers worry that an unattractive "billboard environment" would drive away residents whom the city is trying to attract, he said.

But M.J. "Jay" Brodie, the city's economic development director, dismissed that concern. "I simply don't share that view," he said.

Hale promised the signs would be attractive. "I want this to look nice and that's how it's going to be," he said. He has teamed with Clear Channel, which has designed signs in Times Square and Toronto.

Wrigley, Nike and Abercrombie & Fitch have expressed interest, Hale said. Two billboards could go up within a week of council approval. One for the Blast is dominated by a flaming soccer ball. The other promotes the May run of The Full Monty at the Mechanic Theatre, which Clear Channel manages.

Commission Chairman Peter E. Auchincloss told Hale he thought his "intentions are pure and valid" but said guidelines are needed. The commission wants Hale and city officials to meet with Kreitner, Barry and others to draw up standards. That is to occur before the council holds hearings.

"We can live with this as long as the approval process isn't too onerous," Hale said afterward.

Kreitner said the potential for ugly results would remain. A mockup his group prepared shows fictional billboards advertising bail bonds, an injury lawyer and a laundry business.

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