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Business & Developmentby Fern Shen and Peder Schaefer8:17 amDec 4, 20230

Digital billboards, which sparked furious opposition two years ago, are now popping up along major streets

Promoted by some as a way to liven up downtown Baltimore, derided by others as visual clutter, big flashing signs are being installed – with more big signs just approved

Above: One of Baltimore’s new digital billboards now open for business at the intersection of Lombard and Charles streets. (Fern Shen)

Looking at a screen, members of the Baltimore Planning Commission got a preview of one of the new digital billboards coming to downtown and visuals for some additional signs they were being asked to approve.

One mock-up showed a 20-foot-high by 40-foot-wide digital billboard, wrapped around the corner of a building, hawking Planet Fitness – “BIG fitness energy, $10 a month” – to motorists headed down Pratt Street.

Another showed a 30-foot-high by 51-foot-wide sign proposed for the University of Maryland Medical System atop 250 West Pratt Street, plus other 44-square-foot signs proposed at the building’s ground level.

Asked at the Thursday meeting if there were any questions, two commissioners appeared taken aback by what they had just seen.

“No, thank you. I’m just amazed at a 50-foot sign – five stories,” exclaimed Commissioner Robin Allen.

Even more surprised was Commissioner Doug McCoach, a new member of the panel and the city’s planning director under Mayor Sheila Dixon.

“We worked really hard for years to get rid of billboards in our downtown,” McCoach said. “I think that it is a hard thing for me to look at a sign that advertises a gymnasium or baseball tickets.”

“It is a hard thing for me to look at a sign that advertises a gymnasium or baseball tickets”  – Planning Commissioner Doug McCoach.

Is there any distinction in the rules, he asked, between ads for major institutions of Baltimore and more commercial signage?

Board Chairman Sean Davis told him no, pointing to constitutional considerations (“we can’t regulate content”), then summing up the situation this way:

“One of my college professors who fought for the elimination of billboards is probably turning over in his grave because I approved a billboard ordinance. But it is what it is.”

The commission went on to unanimously approve altering the configuration of the wraparound digital sign and adding expanded space for the signage at 250 West Pratt.

Workers put the finishing touches on one of the first digital billboards going up in downtown Baltimore. (Fern Shen)

Workers put the finishing touches on a digital billboard at Charles and Lombard streets. (Fern Shen)

An Economic Stimulus?

Some of the 11 already-approved digital signs started going up late last week, the commissioners were informed at the meeting.

Caitlin Audette, a planning department staffer, provided a recap of the billboard plan.

“You missed a lot of exciting meetings in the last couple of years,” she quipped to McCoach, drawing chuckles from the other commissioners. “Billboards are allowed in special instances. and one of those instances is within an ‘area of special sign control.’”

Downtown Residents Association: We were blindsided by digital billboard plan (10/18/21)

Downtown residents had protested strongly when the idea surfaced two years ago to create billboard-friendly districts, starting at the waterfront and downtown business core.

The signs would “activate” the ailing center city, add vibrancy and serve as an “economic development engine,” Downtown Partnership of Baltimore (DPOB) President Shelonda Stokes and 11th District Councilman Eric Costello had argued.

But critics said large flashing lights hawking consumer products and displaying company logos would give downtown a cheesy, cluttered look, creating a nuisance for downtown residents and a hazard for motorists. The idea they would revitalize downtown “is patently absurd,” Amy Bernstein said at one meeting, speaking for a group representing 400 downtown residents.

Downtown Partnership of Baltimore president Shelonda Stokes announces the recipient of the group's 2021 President's Award, City Councilman Eric Costello. (Fern Shen)

Downtown Partnership President Shelonda Stokes announces the recipient of its 2021 President’s Award, Councilman Eric Costello, who introduced the billboard legislation. (Fern Shen)

Fast-Tracked Through the Council

Despite the criticism, Costello and Council President Nick Mosby fast-tracked Bill 21-0118, which was unanimously approved by the Council in October 2021 and signed into law by Mayor Brandon Scott.

Then came more wrangling as the issue moved to the Planning Commission, which is now empowered to approve specific sign locations and dimensions.

At first, the plan was pulled from the agenda amid residents’ complaints.

There was also blowback regarding DPOB’s lack of transparency and refusal to release its profit-sharing agreement with Orange Barrel Media and other companies. (DPOB expected to collect more than $300,000 a year in signage fees, Stokes said.)

Planning Department staff subsequently critiqued many of the first signs as too large and “incongruous,” recommending at a March 2022 meeting that four of them be made smaller and one eliminated entirely.

That prompted an outcry from a representative of 36 South Charles Street, who said the building’s new owner, Zamir Equities, was counting on a digital sign to create revenue and attract new tenants.

Only six signs were approved by the Planning Commission at its initial meeting.

But the applicants were able to return three months later. And after some modifications and a now-favorable staff report, all five were approved.

Digital billboard at 204 East Lombard Street, as seen from the southeast-facing corner of the intersection with Commerce Street. (godowntownbaltimore.com)

Mock-up of an approved digital billboard location at 204 East Lombard Street. (godowntownbaltimore.com)

More Signage Coming

Last week, passersby got their first glimpse of some of the new signs, including the one above Planet Fitness, visible to motorists on Lombard Street and the one affixed to Charles Center South where the number “36” used to be.

The images flashing on the screens displayed the work of local artists and content from bmoreart.com, the local visual arts publication.

There were also ads for phone apps and notices about Downtown Partnership events and its holiday guide, as well as a “YOUR AD HERE” call-out from the Capitol Outdoor advertising company.

At Thursday’s meeting, the commission approved the expansion of three ground-level signs at 250 West Pratt Street and two large signs atop the building, where the Pandora sign had been.

The panel also voted to diminish by 17% the dimensions of the digital sign that will wrap around two sides of 100 South Charles.

From the Baltimore Planning Department staff's presentation for the digital sign proposed for the University of Maryland atop 250 West Pratt Street.

The Planning Department staff’s presentation for the 30- x 50-foo billboard proposed for the University of Maryland at 250 West Pratt Street.

No Conflict, Costello says

Councilman Costello disclosed at the meeting that, in addition to sponsoring the billboard bill, he was on the boards of the DPOB and Downtown Management Authority, who both pushed for the legislation.

Yet he chose not to recuse himself, saying, “I do not believe I have a conflict in this matter.”

Minutes later, he voted to approve the amendments.

He was joined by Chairman Davis and fellow commissioners Robin Allen, Marcia Collins, Talib Horne, Doug McCoach, Eric Stephenson and Justin Williams, deputy mayor for community and economic development.

Commissioner Claudia Jolin, who is on the staff of the DPOB, did recuse herself, stepping away from the panel before the item was taken up.

Artwork by Jeremy Opio, one of the images appearing on the new billboard at 36 South Charles Street. (Peder Schaefer)

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