Credit: Darrow Montgomery

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Electronic signage, of all things, has pitted residents of Southwest and Navy Yard against the District’s beloved baseball team.

Last week, a D.C. Council subcommittee advanced a bill, 4-1, that would allow the owners of the Washington Nationals to install five digital billboards on the exterior of Nats Park. The legislation comes with conditions: the LED signs must not hang within the line of sight of nearby homes, must not face South Capitol Street or the Anacostia River, and must not exceed a certain brightness level. But critics say the billboards could flood light into living spaces, lower residential property values, and multiply in neighborhoods throughout the District.

“This is just friggin’ wrong, truly outrageous on so many levels,” says Andy Litsky, chair of ANC 6D. “We have to figure out a real process [for these billboards], not a slipshod, grease-the-skids way of moving legislation through with little opportunity for people to comment . …Neighborhoods better watch out, since this is going to be happening all over the place without any proper input.”

Ward 6 Councilmember Charles Allen proposed the legislation in mid-October along with seven of his colleagues and two co-sponsors. Its backers insist that the intent is to create a “regulatory framework” for permitting electronic signs—like those on the facade of Verizon Center—to be administered by the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs. DCRA has conducted a comprehensive review of all signage rules, from sandwich boards to street signs, over the past five years.

The legislation states that billboards could go up in “designated entertainment areas,” or places bustling enough that digital displays would be of a piece. Opponents contend that this language opens the door to LED billboards appearing at other sites. 

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They also say the council is rushing to approve the bill before the end of the year, with a public hearing and the subcommittee’s session taking place within two days of each other last week. At-Large Councilmember Elissa Silverman, who dissented last Wednesday, agreed with them, saying residents have not had enough time to review the changes.

“I’m not against the signs, but we need to slow down, we need to be deliberate, we need to be thoughtful, because I do think there’s a Pandora’s box issue here. …There is a concern about the proliferation of these signs and their impact on the quality of life [and] public safety in our city,” Silverman told her colleagues. A fervent Nationals fan, Silverman tried to have the measure pulled from consideration—citing potential risks to pedestrians, cyclists, and drivers—but failed.

How large these signs would be remains a point of confusion. According to the subcommittee’s markup, one at Nats Park would measure 38 by 25 feet, a second 25 by 20 feet, and the rest similar dimensions. Yet this version also states that no entertainment-area display may be bigger than 1,200 square feet, or occupy more than 20 percent of a building wall or surface. Silverman noted that one sign presented by the team seemed to “almost take up the entire wall” on which it hung. 

Although At-Large Councilmember Robert White voted for the bill, he pointed out that the Nationals are basically asking “to make a profit by advertising on public space on a building that taxpayers paid for.” He said his future support depends on identifying a tax, fee, or community benefits package linked with the billboards to invest in surrounding neighborhoods, which Allen supports. The team’s leadership testified that it would cost about $5 million to install 10 displays, and these would together generate $1 million to $2 million per year in advertising.

In a statement, a spokeswoman for the Nationals says “the city always envisioned we would be part of a vibrant entertainment zone, and these signs will help support that vision.” But Litsky argues that the legislation would subvert a decade-old zoning order for Nats Park that restricts electronic signs, and benefit anyone who wants to place them in purported entertainment areas. “Shaw better watch out,” he cautions. “East of the river, with the Wizards practice arena, better watch out.”

Council Chairman Phil Mendelson says he’s “sympathetic” to the criticism over what composes an entertainment area, adding that the proposal could more clearly distinguish between the one around Nats Park and other spots. He notes that the bill has supermajority support, though it may be tweaked when the full council marks it up, likely on Dec. 6. 

“It’s very difficult when a large enterprise like the Nationals Baseball Club or Monumental Sports & Entertainment comes to the council saying, ‘Well, give us a few signs,’ for the council to then say ‘No,’” Mendelson admits. “They’re major players in the city.”

Some of the bill’s detractors are antagonistic towards the billboard industry itself. Meg Maguire, the incoming vice president of The Committee of 100 on the Federal City, a civic group, says big digital displays do not “enliven” neighborhoods and do not provide much more than what people can view on their phones. “We’re dealing here with an industry that has been very lucrative, very pushy, often out of compliance, with a general attitude of ‘we’ll see you in court,’” Maguire says. 

She points to an August lawsuit the D.C. Attorney General’s office filed against Digi Media Communications for not obtaining proper permits, which preliminarily stalled the company’s plans to erect electronic displays on several buildings across the District. 

Maguire doesn’t buy the argument that digital signs could be used for public service messages at intervals, as the legislation stipulates, either. “What do you do, longingly gaze at the billboard for an ad that’s going to inform you about cancer screening? Get real.” The Capitol Hill resident says the only “effective” strategy is to outlaw new billboards, as Vermont, Maine, Alaska, and Hawaii have done.

If the bill passes, it could take a few years for all five signs to go up at Nats Park. But the 2018 Major League Baseball All-Star Game, which D.C. will host, looms, putting pressure on the team to put its best foot forward. The event could produce tens of millions in local tourism dollars.

“I think the number of questions and the ambiguity and contradictory provisions here speak to the fact that we should be taking our time with this,” Silverman argued. “This may seem like a small issue about a bunch of signs at a baseball park, but in fact this is a big issue about public space, and about public safety.  … And I think it’s something not to be taken lightly.”

No pun intended.