Glowing Downtown billboard transfixes council for 6 hours

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A glowing billboard slated for the new Grant Street Transportation Center was the subject of a sometimes-heated special meeting of Pittsburgh City Council yesterday.

The meeting lasted nearly six hours but ended without resolution of a conflict regarding the approval of the sign without any public hearings or votes.

"Where does the public get a chance to help us understand the appropriateness" of the 20-by-60-foot sign permitted for the front of the center, asked Council President Doug Shields. He said the city at the very least should have gotten a legal opinion and then submitted the matter for public hearings and votes of the planning commission and council under the city zoning code.

Urban Redevelopment Authority Executive Director Pat Ford said the city has approved 12 other LED billboards over five years without any hearings or votes. He said Lamar Advertising has agreed to remove around 80 old billboards in return.

"Not once, over the course of the past five years, have we received one complaint, one protest that people filed," he said, nor, until now, any suggestion of "an outright, illegal, underhanded deal."

Last year Mr. Ford was chairman of the board of the Pittsburgh Parking Authority, which is building the center's parking garages and Greyhound Lines station at 11th Street and Liberty Avenue, Downtown. The authority negotiated a deal with Lamar, which is to pay sign construction costs estimated at $7 million, plus rent starting at $3,000 a month.

The sign was approved by Zoning Administrator Susan Tymoczko in consultation with Mr. Ford. Lamar agreed to remove six old billboards totalling 1,400 square feet from nearby sites, an arrangement they viewed as a reduction of "visual blight."

Council members cited numerous code provisions that would seem to either ban new Downtown billboards or demand hearings and votes. Mr. Ford countered that none of them are applicable, so he "took advantage of a gray area in the code."

Mr. Ford confirmed that there's no code provision expressly allowing a billboard swap, but said one can "never look at the zoning ordinance in a snapshot of time. ... Interpretations evolve. Interpretations become precedents.

"We've assumed all along that everyone was comfortable with the precedent that had been established."

City Solicitor George Specter stopped short of saying the arrangement complied with the city code. Trading old billboards for new "has a long history going back a number of years," he said. "And quite frankly, I'm still trying to unravel most of it."

He said he'll be able to produce a legal opinion in a few weeks.

Council members have questioned whether the parking authority board should have voted to allow the billboard under open meetings laws. Mr. Ford said the board did not have to approve the arrangement with Lamar, because it did not involve expenditure of public money.

It has voted on other leases.

Council seemed to be evenly divided on whether the permit was awarded appropriately. Those divisions became obvious early in the meeting, when some members conducted lengthy questioning of three city officials prior to bringing Mr. Ford to the table, while others protested.

"We have someone who can answer your question sitting in the audience!" Councilman Jim Motznik shouted at Councilman Bruce Kraus, referring to Mr. Ford. "You're wasting our time! Bring him to the table!"

Prior to the special meeting, Mayor Luke Ravenstahl said he thought the permit was appropriate, but didn't rule out submitting it to the Zoning Board of Adjustment for a vote.

"This is a process that actually began under Mayor Tom Murphy's administration, continued through Mayor O'Connor and then obviously now in my administration," he said. "Whatever needs to be done, we'll do. We feel that we acted appropriately. If, for whatever reason, we have to go back through the ZBA, for example, that's something I'd be comfortable with and fine with."

He added, though, that there's "definitely the potential" for Lamar to sue the city if the permit is rescinded. "But that's something we'll try to work through throughout this process."

Council scheduled a public hearing on the billboard for 1:30 p.m. March 20.


Staff writer Wade Malcolm contributed. Rich Lord can be reached at rlord@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1542.


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