Plan to erect LED sign bypasses city panels, gets approval anyway

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A 1,200-square-foot electronic billboard will decorate the rising Grant Street Transportation Center as part of a deal between Pittsburgh officials and Lamar Advertising to trade old, paper signs for new, illuminated ones.

Because of its size and cost, the sign would normally need zoning board and planning commission approval, but it is proceeding with neither. Pat Ford, executive director of the Urban Redevelopment Authority, said yesterday that he backed an administrator's decision to authorize the sign without any other approvals, because the deal will reduce the number of billboards in the Strip District, Downtown and Lawrenceville.

He said city code "is silent" on deals that can reduce "nonconformities" like old billboards that don't meet new standards.

"My interpretation is, where the code is silent, I'm going to try to improve the greater good of the area," he said.

"Just to have another big advertising billboard, which is apparently the intent of this, I don't see the need for that," said state Sen. Jim Ferlo, D-Highland Park. He called it "a waste of creative space."

The Pittsburgh Parking Authority is building the center, which will include a Greyhound Lines station and 1,050 parking spaces, is due to open in June.

The building will sit where the central business district, the Strip District and the Cultural District meet.

In December, the authority asked the city zoning office for permission to put a 20-foot-by-60-foot LED advertising sign on the garage side facing Grant Street. The bottom of the sign would sit 32 feet above street level. Zoning administrator Susan Tymoczko approved it a week later.

City code normally would demand a zoning board review of a sign that, Mr. Ford confirms, is far larger than anything that had previously been on that site. The cost of installing the sign will be several times the $50,000 limit that triggers planning commission review of Downtown construction.

Mr. Ford said he and Ms. Tymoczko instead relied on a deal he had forged with Lamar during former Mayor Tom Murphy's administration, when he was zoning administrator. Then, the city agreed to let Lamar build six LED billboards in return for taking down 36 traditional signs that he called "visual blight."

Parking authority Executive Director David Onorato said his agency will pay nothing for the sign, will charge Lamar rent, "and it enhances my building big-time."

John DeSantis, executive director of the Duquesne Light Home & Garden Show, which will occupy the convention center next month, noted that city officials have long sought to turn Grant Street into a regal thoroughfare.

"If the culmination of this grand boulevard is this lighted, digital billboard, what did you go and spend all of that money for?" he asked.

Rich Lord can be reached at or 412-263-1542.


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