Signs of time: Digital ad fight spreads across city

An advertising firm's request to electrify 42 billboards, from Esplen to Larimer, blew fuses on Grant Street yesterday, broadening a governmental struggle that started with a single sign.

Lamar Advertising submitted applications to transform many of its signs, including 10 Downtown, from vinyl to light emitting diode technology late Monday, just in time to beat a moratorium Pittsburgh City Council imposed yesterday.

"So now we've almost declared war, and I'm not sure that's good for anybody," said Mayor Luke Ravenstahl, who blamed council and defended a 5-year-old practice of allowing Lamar to put up one digital sign for every five or six vinyl ones it took down. "I guess it would be bad to have 42 LED billboards in communities, and that's why the swap process was done methodically."

Councilman Bruce Kraus, sponsor of the moratorium, called Lamar's applications "so counterproductive to what we're trying to accomplish. ... The purpose of the moratorium is to have a cooling-off period. And this just escalates it."

Lamar real estate manager Jim Vlasach would not comment when reached by phone.

The firm, though, spoke through its sign permit applications, asking to put the ever-changing, highly profitable digital signs in Oakland, the Strip District, Hazelwood, Chateau, East Allegheny, Upper Lawrenceville, the Bluff, Mount Washington, Duquesne Heights, Overbrook, Larimer, Esplen, the South Side, Bloomfield and Downtown. Motorists crossing the 62nd Street, Liberty, 31st Street, Birmingham and West End bridges would see digital signs.

"Nobody in the neighborhoods has been asked about the impact of this on their communities," said Councilman William Peduto, calling the mass applications "contradictory to open public discourse."

Councilman Jim Motznik described the applications as Lamar "doing what they legally can do, which is fine with me."

Tony Ceoffe, executive director of Lawrenceville United, said he fears this will nix his effort to get Lamar to take down many Butler Street billboards in return for two new digital signs.

"It sure seems Lamar is well within its rights," Mr. Ceoffe said.

Dozens more digital billboards would be "a different kind of impact on the landscape, on the cityscape, and it should be evaluated carefully," said Anne-Marie Lubenau, president of the Community Design Center of Pittsburgh.

"These billboards are terribly disrespectful to architecture," said David Lewis, former head of nationally known planning firm Urban Design Associates. He said the city should "take [legal] steps not to violate the integrity of our architectural sequences."

Each application was accompanied by an $85 check for planning and building inspection fees.

Mr. Ravenstahl said it is up to zoning administrator Susan Tymoczko to determine whether Lamar has the right to modernize its billboards. She said she would submit the question to the city Law Department, which is preparing an opinion on sign rules.

Council asked for the opinion after the Ravenstahl administration agreed to allow Lamar to put a 1,200-square-foot digital billboard on the new Grant Street Transportation Center, in return for removing six smaller signs. Five council members have filed zoning protests arguing that the city code requires hearings and votes by three panels, including council, for such a sign.

Mr. Kraus introduced his moratorium legislation after word circulated that someone had asked city planners about expanding Lamar's Bayer sign on Mount Washington. Bayer and Lamar have denied any such plan.

Mr. Kraus' legislation would give council a vote on all sign replacements. Changes in the zoning code take effect immediately upon introduction, and remain so during the lengthy passage process. It is typical for companies to file applications just before introduction of zoning changes.

"Lamar probably felt that they had to protect their best interests because of what was going to be a moratorium," Mr. Ravenstahl said. The legislation "created a chaotic position now for us to be in, in that we have to consider 42 LED billboards."

Mr. Kraus also submitted legislation directing the mayor to put a six-month hold on all sign change applications, retroactive to March 12. Mr. Ravenstahl said he did not know whether he had the power to impose a retroactive moratorium.

Council will hold a public hearing tomorrow on Mr. Peduto's call for an investigation of the Grant Street Transportation Center sign permit.

Rich Lord can be reached at or 412-263-1542. First Published March 19, 2008 4:00 AM


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