At Hearings, Billboards Termed Out Of Place
Testifying on a panel with members from two other community boards representing Queens, Community Board 1 District Manager George Delis told the City Council Subcommittee on Zoning and Franchises, chaired by Queens Councilmember Walter McCaffrey, that a six-story high billboard now under construction on Steinway Street and Northern Boulevard was "totally out of place in our community." Delis made his statement during a City Hall hearing on Jan. 9th for two new proposed amendments to the zoning code seeking tougher enforcement measures and more stringent regulations on the size, height and illumination of outdoor advertising signs.
Flanked by Sylvia Hack, chairperson of Community Board 9 and Joseph Conley, chair of Community Board 2, Delis called the Steinway Street sign an unsightly distraction that required either a reduction in size or total removal. McCaffrey asked Delis if he knew how a permit for the sign, unattached to a building and apparently illegal, was obtained from the Department of Buildings. Delis replied, "That merits looking into."
Motorists coming into Queens have long been distracted by oversized, illegal billboards along arterial highways but now the new rules, which must be approved by the City Council, offer stronger more effective enforcement. Terming an explosion in the outdoor advertising industry and widespread flouting of existing regulations threats to the integrity of city land use policies, Joseph Rose, chairman of the City Planning Commission told the committee that the Department of City Planning and the administration of Mayor Rudolph Giuliani had stepped to the forefront of an important issue by proposing Intro 809, changing the city zoning code of 40 years’ existence to allow the Environmental Control Board to fine violators a maximum of $15,000 for a first offense and $25,000 for repeated offenses. Currently, an average fine of $650 takes up to 14 months to process in criminal court and isn’t even paid by the outdoor ad company, as only property owners can be fined. Rose estimated some billboards bring annual revenues of $1 million.
In Board 2, signs have sprouted along the Long Island Expressway near the Midtown Tunnel like redwoods in a forest, even though billboards within 200 feet of a highway are prohibited unless they are for a nearby business.
Legal permits for outdoor "accessory" ads are quickly exchanged for lucrative ads leased to outside companies with little or no oversight. Conley said he has been fighting illegal billboards since 1989 and with the aid of a slide show, demonstrated the many billboards erected over the last two years in his neighborhood. Billboards in existence along city arterial highways in 1980 have been exempted. There are now approximately 200 billboards on all of the city’s arterial highways, and according to the New York Outdoor Group, an association of outdoor advertising companies making up 80 percent of signs that would be affected by the new proposals, more than 25 percent of these billboards have been put up only since 1997.
Inspired by a booming regional economy and the introduction of vinyl and other lightweight display materials, outdoor advertising can today consist of display signs of 3,000 square feet or more when even a few years ago, 1,200 square feet was considered the largest size practical for outdoor ads in the industry.
Conley testified that these new lightweight ads are sometimes placed on buildings, blocking windows in apparent fire code violations. The Department of City Planning has recommended size limits of 500 square feet in mixed-use districts and 750 square feet in manufacturing districts. The Outdoor Group, representing a combined investment of over $500 million and 1,100 jobs, has counterproposed limits of 1,000 square feet in mixed use districts and 1,200 square feet in manufacturing districts where currently there are no restrictions at all.
City Planning also proposes to extend regulations now in effect in other parts of the city to manufacturing and mixed-use zones, requiring that illuminated outdoor ads rise no more than 40 feet from curb level, and that unilluminated signs or those lit by indirect illumination rise no higher than 58 feet from curb level.
The City Planning Commission said the new rules are in response to outdoor advertising placed on water tanks, rooftops and the facades of tall buildings, sometimes in view of residential neighborhoods. In addition to fines, the Buildings Department would have the right to dismantle billboards erected by parties ignoring the law.
In a press release, leaders of New York City’s outdoor advertising industry called the proposed City Planning zoning changes "unworkable and unfair." They are specifically asking for a grandfather date allowing signs in place before the new ordinances were enacted to remain. The measures are due to come before the City Council next month for a vote.
Last year, the City Planning Commission proposed a broad revision of its zoning laws, including for the first time limits on the height of new buildings in the city. However, although the plan won early approval from local community boards, the Real Estate Board of New York led opposition to the proposal. A City Council vote on the proposed changes, originally scheduled for the fall, was postponed for submission to the law making body by Rose until later this month.
The Department of Buildings, accused of lax enforcement by the outdoor advertising industry, has recently been the subject of a mayoral task force that recommended it be taken over by a nonprofit public authority, committed to improving efficiency and rooting out corruption,according to a Dec. 1st New York Times report.
Besides McCaffrey, other Queens councilmembers on the Subcommittee are Sheldon Leffler and John Sabini. Councilmember Karen Koslowitz, although not on the subcommittee, was in attendance. Hack, chairman of Board 9 in Richmond Hill, Woodhaven, Kew Gardens, and Ozone Park, described the signs along the Long Island Expressway as "visual noise." In 1999, an anti-immigration message was displayed on three billboards, two in Queens, at a cost of $2,250 a month. Those billboards were taken down by the outdoor ad company because of political opposition generated. The new rules will require outdoor ad companies to register with the Buildings Department and to display their registration number on their signs.
A lawyer for the outdoor advertisers cited an appeal by the tobacco industry accepted on Jan. 8th by the United States Supreme Court that will decide whether state restrictions on cigarette advertising violate either federal law or the manufacturers’ right of free speech, something he said "could eliminate or drastically reduce differences between political and commercial speech."
But when the attorney referred to years of litigation, McCaffrey quickly interrupted him and said, "We hear this all the time. (Litigation) doesn’t stop us, will never stop us."
A group calling itself LAWS (Lively Artistic Wall Signs) pointed out that property owners, retailers, nonprofit organizations, union workers, artists, advertising and the entertainment industry all rely on outdoor advertising.
For example, the Museum of Modern Art, which will temporarily move to the old Swingline stapler factory in McCaffrey’s Long Island City district in June 2002, will use billboards to tell people where the museum is temporarily relocated and how to get there.
McCaffrey conceded the importance of the outdoor advertising industry but emphasized, "we have reached a point of excess." One panel speaker put the proliferation of large and loud outdoor ad signs in the city beyond Times Square into perspective. "New York is an advertising town. We created Madison Avenue,’ she said. She added but "these signs are too much, too big. Please pass these regulations."