Advertisers, city council continue 'Pittsburgh' sign dispute

Fight still stalling its modernization

The decay of the iconic "Pittsburgh" sign on the face of Mount Washington is a byproduct of a four-year tug-of-war between City Council and outdoor advertisers.

The battle, begun in 2008, has sidetracked plans to repair or modernize the sign, which is covered with rust that obliterates the gray-and-white mosaic that spells the city's name. The fight continues to this day, with two legal proceedings that could impact efforts to upgrade the 226- by 30-foot sign.

In December, after years of crafting regulations for signs and billboards, council was prepared to vote on a bill whose language would have permitted an upgrade to the Pittsburgh sign. But a last-minute amendment removed that language, and the administration of Mayor Luke Ravenstahl believes the bill that passed 8-1 on Dec. 19 does not allow it to be modernized.

Lamar Advertising, owner of the sign, has filed two actions seeking to void the ordinance, claiming council violated public hearing requirements and constitutional guarantees of free speech, due process and equal protection under the law.

The company's lawyer, Jonathan M. Kamin, has focused on the fact that council considered five different versions of the bill in the weeks leading up to the final vote. The final one differed materially from the original and should have been sent back to the planning commission for another public hearing and recommendations, his court filing said.

"We believe the ordinance as adopted in December makes the modernization [of the Pittsburgh sign] a real challenge," Mr. Kamin said Tuesday, emphasizing that he regards the ordinance as invalid. He said the sign "is an embarrassment and it is a disappointment. The city has really held this up."

The dispute dates to March 2008, when some council members objected to the placement of an electronic sign on the new Grant Street Transportation Center, saying the permit was issued improperly.

Council then approved a moratorium on new signs and set about drafting new regulations, a process that stretched to last December.

Mr. Ravenstahl's spokeswoman, Joanna Doven, said Monday that the mayor supports an upgrade to the Pittsburgh sign but agreed that the adopted ordinance, which he allowed to become law without his signature, does not permit it.

The sign was designed to display the city's name by day, visible from miles away, and light up in neon at night. A big part of the dispute is whether the sign should be modernized with brighter, energy-efficient LED lighting or retain its gas tubing.

Robinson-based Bayer Corp., which has advertised on the sign since 1995, is a science company and believes the use of outdated technology reflects poorly on it. "It's not the image Bayer wants to promote in this region," spokesman Bryan N. Iams said Monday.

Maintaining an LED sign also would be safer and less expensive, proponents said.

Councilman Patrick Dowd, who started the battle against the sign on the Grant Street Transportation Center in 2008, said he voted to remove the special language for the Pittsburgh sign because he thought it constitut

"They wanted a special clause dedicated to that sign," he said. "It was clear that Lamar was sort of pushing for us to spot zone for them."

Opponents are concerned about light pollution, aesthetics and the propriety of making major changes to one of the more familiar sights in Pittsburgh's cityscape.

Former councilman Doug Shields, whom Lamar has accused of being part of "an effort to once and for all cripple the outdoor advertising community," posted a comment on the Post-Gazette's website on Tuesday accusing the company of allowing the sign to deteriorate because it wanted to convert from neon to LED.

"They wanted an LED there. They let it fall into disrepair. They didn't get the LED. Just please do a nice job 'restoring' (not upgrading) this Pittsburgh icon, thank you. It would be like putting an LED on the Hollywood sign in L.A. Double Yoi!" he wrote.

Councilwoman Theresa Kail-Smith, whose district includes Mount Washington, said improving the sign "is definitely necessary" but wants to be careful not to enact legislation that would allow additional electronic signs along Grandview Avenue, which lies in the same "public realm" zoning district as the Pittsburgh sign.

The language stripped out of the final bill by council allowed "community message signs" in public realm districts, defining them in a way that appeared to apply only to the Pittsburgh sign.

It described such signs as showing announcements by nonprofits or other community information for two-thirds of the time, interspersed with a company name or logo that can appear only one-third of the time -- precisely how Bayer uses the existing sign.

Ms. Kail-Smith said her constituents are divided on the issue of LED technology vs. keeping the neon lighting. "I've heard from both sides," she said.

But everyone agrees on one thing, she said.

"They definitely want that sign to look better than it does."


Jon Schmitz: or 412-263-1868. Visit the PG's transportation blog, The Roundabout, at Twitter: @pgtraffic. First Published May 16, 2012 4:00 AM


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