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During the Depression, the District outlawed billboards that deface the historic character of the city. After the late-’90s boomlet,
the District outlawed “special signs” that deface the historic character of the city.
Photographs by Darrow Montgomery
Anna Maria Delgado knows about the real estate pressures that Washington’s booming economy have brought to her neighborhood. “One way or another, Latins are being driven out,” Delgado says.
And Delgado is familiar with the forces driving the city’s gentrification, namely, yuppies, baby boomers, and the industries—coffee shops and gourmet eateries—that indulge them. But none of the usual suspects drove Delgado from the office space she occupied in Adams Morgan.
In her case, the proposed new tenant was a 640-square-foot fabric sign of an SUV. Yes, Delgado was evicted by a banner to be hung outside of her office.
Here’s how it happened: For eight years, Delgado ran a financial services company from the second floor of 1787 Columbia Road NW, where she assisted Dominican, Colombian, Salvadoran, and other immigrants in wiring money back to their native countries. She paid $1,500 per month for the space and says that she was expecting a renegotiation of her lease in October 2000, when she received a letter from the bank informing her that she’d have to get out.
The landlord had found a better tenant in the form of an advertisement for the Mercury Mountaineer. The banner would cover the window of Delgado’s office, making it an illegal rental property under the D.C. Code. Just weeks after Delgado’s eviction, the D.C. Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs (DCRA) issued a permit for what it calls a “special sign,” which is basically a large fabric sheet that hangs from the side of a building.
The holidays—Delgado’s busiest time of year—were fast approaching, so the timing of her eviction was rough. She says she was lucky to find a new office space a few blocks down 18th Street. Delgado now harbors a billboard grudge.
“The reason people come to this neighborhood is because of the residential feel to it,” Delgado says. “These billboards are the last thing that a citizen in this neighborhood would like.”
For decades, D.C. leaders have launched every scheme in the municipal arsenal to attract big business to the city. Mayor Anthony A. Williams makes a ceremony of wooing retail chains in his routine trips to Las Vegas business conventions, and the D.C. Council is willing to essentially void the local tax code just to lure a dot-com or two to an embattled neighborhood.
But as Delgado discovered, when big business comes to town, it comes in many different guises.
Just as empty storefronts have filled up with upscale retailers, Washington’s empty brick walls overlooking well-traveled boulevards have become irresistible canvases for advertisers.
Van Wagner, a New York-based advertising company, notes on its Web site that the Washington/Baltimore area is “the seventh largest market in the United States in population and purchasing power. Until recently, outdoor branding opportunities in D.C. have been scarce.”
The scarcity of those branding opportunities owes to a 70-year ban on new billboards. That banner ban came about when the city moved aggressively to check the encroachment of ads Depression-era civic leaders thought were defacing the District and its federal landmarks.
The anti-commercial aesthetic to this day stirs the passions of D.C. preservationists. In the past, this vocal but underfunded lobby has waged war with developers over symptoms of urban decay such as the protection of crumbling historic buildings. But this time, the problem is prosperity, a set of circumstances that appears to have caught the D.C. government off guard.
After unwittingly allowing a law undermining the billboard ban to take effect, the D.C. Council has struggled to find a way to turn back the clock and just last month approved a measure that attempts to restore the commercial neutrality of building sides.
“These billboards are not bettering the beauty and ambiance of the city,” At-Large Councilmember Carol Schwartz says. She argues that the council should take some of the “reasonable” actions other jurisdictions have taken to rid themselves of wall signs.
If Delgado is looking to blame anyone in city government for her eviction, her best candidate is Ward 6 Councilmember Sharon Ambrose, who chairs the Council Committee on Consumer and Regulatory Affairs.
In the summer of 2000, an amendment to the D.C. Building Code authored by the DCRA floated by Ambrose’s desk. In several pages of rule-making doublespeak, the amendment gave life to the mysteriously named “special signs.”
The rules sounded harmless, but they took aim at a staple of D.C. urban planning that is almost as hallowed as the building-height limit. In 1931, Congress ruled that no new billboards could be erected in the District and made a list of existing billboards that could remain standing. The billboard list now includes 76 of these grandfathered signs.
Ambrose’s committee had 45 days to catch the amendment but let it slip by. The review period expired and the rules became effective, the council claims, before it picked up on the amendment. By that point, it was too late.
Dick Wolf, who heads the local affiliate of Scenic America, a group that opposes billboards, says that the special-sign rules were embedded in the regulatory system in such as way that it reminded him of “joining a book club where if you don’t send back the books they mail you, you buy the books.”
Ambrose says that committee aide Esther Bushman eventually discovered the amendment. By that time, the DCRA had issued 32 permits for special signs to two local companies, Thaxton Management and CO Media LLC, and Van Wagner. The three companies shelled out one-time fees of $1 for each square foot of sign space.
Scrambling to do damage control, Ambrose and the council on Nov. 8, 2000, passed a moratorium on new special signs. The anti-sign faction, though, could do nothing about the 32 new banners.
“People don’t read the D.C. Register very carefully, and these are very complicated regulations,” Ambrose says.
The rules governing traditional billboards are stringent, mandating that ads must stay a certain distance away from government buildings, residential districts, parks, and historic landmarks.
But those rules don’t apply to special signs approved under the DCRA’s amendment. To wit: Traditional billboards may not be located within 300 feet of any historic landmark. For special signs, the buffer is 60 feet, or just across the street.
Special signs do face more stringent content requirements than their traditional brethren do. The DCRA rules require that the ads be predominantly pictorial and nonverbal. Only a small amount of text is allowed on the signs, and the ad sponsor’s logo may be no taller than one-tenth the height of the sign. Flashing lights and animation also got the nix on special signs. The council considered taking the content regulation further by requiring an ad-artwork review process, but it bagged the notion after taking a fresh look at the First Amendment.
In the view of activists and councilmembers, though, the DCRA did a poor job of reining in the size of the banners.
“The only difference between wall signs and billboards is that wall signs are bigger,” Schwartz said during a recent legislative session on the signs.
Billboards can reach only 300 square feet in area—the standard spread for a roadside Budweiser billboard in the District. The largest special sign allowed could be 36 times that size—or about half the size of a football field. Signs affixed to buildings can reach a height of nine stories. Free-standing signs can be of unlimited width but can be no more than 30 feet high.
Permits for fashion ads that covered entire building sides quickly raised the ire of neighborhood groups and local activists, who have called such signs “visual pollution” and “billboards on steroids.”
Many D.C. activists oppose the new signs, but the cause’s official expert is Adams Morgan resident Ann Hargrove. Surrounding her in the parlor of her Adams Morgan home is an impressive array of documentation she’s acquired while researching her pet project. Her materials include meticulously updated “field notes” listing the case histories for all 32 special signs, complete with digital pictures of many.
And in the spirit of visual displays, Hargrove produces a large laminated map of the District on which she has catalogued the sites of the special signs and 76 traditional billboards. She has also color-coded the territory of Washington’s “Central Business District” and the portions of the “Central Employment Area,” as defined in municipal regulations, that are eligible for special-sign transfers from other sites in the city.
Hargrove says she spent $300 on the map, which she presented in her arguments to the D.C. Council during a 2001 hearing. She also offered her services to the DCRA, and the agency took her around to several special-sign sites with an inspection team. Hargrove says that DCRA inspectors conceded some of her points about sites she claimed were bending the rules.
“It’s criminal that we’re going to have these signs in the vicinity of national landmarks,” says Hargrove, who moved to Adams Morgan in the mid-’60s after a stint working in city planning in New York City and is now retired. “Washington was laid out to be a special place, and this is an assault on the city, and totally unnecessary. It really is a terrible scandal.”
Although activists like Hargrove are loath to admit it, there’s another impetus behind their legwork. It has to do with money, but not with big business. “No one wants a billboard in their back yard. A study in Pittsburgh, PA, found that property values rose as much as 255% after the removal of nearby billboards,” reads the Web site of Scenic America.
Hargrove’s sign antennae popped up after she spotted changes in the urban landscape downtown. First, she saw the ad for the National Gallery of Art on the National Public Radio (NPR) building at 6th Street and Massachusetts Avenue NW. Another sign across from the MCI Center featured the likeness of Washington Bullets/Wizards player Chris Webber.
Webber didn’t last as a Wizard or as a billboard icon, but the legality of the giant fabric sign and others appearing around town piqued the ire of Hargrove and like-minded residents.
Hargrove learned of the proposed Mercury Mountaineer advertisement that was to appear at 18th and Columbia shortly after the D.C. Council realized its mistake on the sign amendment. Although it was too late for Delgado, whose business had already been evicted from the building, Hargrove joined forces with the Adams Morgan Advisory Neighborhood Commission and other neighborhood activists to oppose the sign.
Hargrove lodged a complaint on the grounds that the sign would cover windows, something the special-sign rules expressly prohibit. Although the landlord offered to fill in the building’s windows, Hargrove and Ward 1 Councilmember Jim Graham succeeded in keeping the sign down.
Since that first victory, the ranks of billboard opponents have grown stronger. Hargrove found support from influential local law firms, the Kalorama Citizens Association, the Advisory Neighborhood Commission General Assembly, the Coalition for Greater Preservation Enforcement, the Committee of 100 on the Federal City, and Conservation America. At a press conference in D.C. last fall, Conservation America named the District one of 10 “endangered American landscapes.” Billboards were cited as the dominant threat to the District’s distinctive character.
The furor over special signs has spread to the traditional billboards around D.C. Hargrove and others have attacked the legality of billboards that line the New York Avenue approach to the city. These ads rotate regularly, with Budweiser, Volvo, and patriotic slogans some of the more recent occupants. A beer ad with a backdrop of the Capitol dome makes for an enticing target for anti-sign activists.
Hargrove says that several of the New York Avenue billboards, including two near the corner of Florida Avenue, are illegal because they lack permits. The company that owns these billboards is Eller Media, a subsidiary of Clear Channel Outdoor, one of the biggest outdoor advertising companies in the world. Although the two billboards aren’t special signs and don’t appear on the list of legal traditional billboards, Don Scherer, president of Clear Channel Outdoor’s Washington/Baltimore division, says they comply with the law.
“Those signs have been there long enough that if they were under suspicion they would’ve been nailed long ago,” Scherer says.
DCRA spokesperson Gina Douglas says that the billboards at the corner of Florida and New York Avenue may be managed by Eller/Clear Channel, but that the owner of the property traditionally holds the permit for a billboard.
“We haven’t quite confirmed ownership of the property,” Douglas says, adding that the DCRA is in the process of making that verification.
But Hargrove insists that property ownership is irrelevant in the debate over the New York Avenue billboards’ status: “If the billboards aren’t on the grandfathered list, they’re illegal.”
Scherer says that big advertising companies such as Clear Channel Outdoor, which also holds the ad contract for Metro bus shelters, are obligated to play by the rules and be good partners with the community and local government. He admits to frustration that the controversy over special signs has drawn out complaints about Clear Channel Outdoor’s billboards. (In fact, the company was the only applicant out of four that failed to snare a single one of the DCRA’s 32 special-sign permits.)
In their march across the D.C. cityscape, sign companies have had a helpful partner in the DCRA, charges Hargrove. She says the agency cut corners in a rush to slip as many permits as possible in before the council passed its November 2000 moratorium on new signs. Hargrove adds that location permits issued before the moratorium should not be classified as legitimate.
Douglas says that the 32 sign permits were issued in full compliance with the rules. “DCRA didn’t slip anything in. This is a regulatory agency. We don’t stand to gain anything from this,” Douglas says. “We certainly would not violate the council’s order.”
Jeff Travers, who helped represent CO Media in its bid for permits, says that the sign companies and the DCRA were conscientious throughout the lengthy application process.
“We filed our original permit applications in March 2000. This was a really long process with a great deal of public notice,” Travers says. “We worked with the city to come up with rules that were sensible.”
The first special sign to appear at 1230 South Capitol St. SE was a public-service announcement (PSA) touting D.C.’s most popular political cause. It read, “Great patriots oppose taxation without representation. So should you.”
Before commuters could even get in touch with their congressional reps, though, a new banner moved in. This time the cause was…Wrigley’s chewing gum. That sign also got yanked, and now the space is covered with an ad for Michael Jordan’s clothing line, Jordan City. The fashion ad depicts a model in street attire hanging out on a subway platform. The special sign appears to occupy its full permitted space of 30 by 60 feet.
A sign warning of the dangers of drinking and driving previously covered the side of the office building at 1201 L St. NW. The temperance promo has since morphed into a plug for Microsoft. Feel-good ads touting the National Gallery and patriotic slogans have also popped up in numerous spots around town. At the corner of 11th and N Streets NW, a wall sign wrapped halfway around an old building declares, “United We Stand,” next to superimposed pictures of the American flag and the Statue of Liberty.
PSAs are hardly cash cows like billboards sponsored by Microsoft, Ford, and Banana Republic. In fact, there’s no revenue behind them.
Why, then, do advertising companies bother with PSAs?
Because they’re smart. The rationale, according to Scenic America, is to soften up communities that may balk at a commercial display suddenly plastered over a once featureless building flank.
Advertising companies can run off magazine-quality artwork in the form of giant fabric signs quickly and relatively cheaply, enabling a regular rotation of special-sign ads. Paul Whitby, senior vice president of Van Wagner, says that the fabric signs can cost about $2,000 to $4,000 to produce, with a lifetime of around six to eight months. It’s this ease of production that makes D.C.’s special-signscape so mutable.
Activists dread a classic bait-and-switch at the NPR building, the marquee D.C. special-sign canvas. A whopping 10,800 square feet, the space permitted is seven stories high and 155 feet wide. It’s obvious why Van Wagner, which holds the permit, coveted NPR’s massive brick wall, which faces the flow of inbound commuters passing within view of the building each morning on Massachusetts Avenue and K Street.
The fabric sign hanging on NPR’s wall is a reproduction of a painting by Martin Johnson Heade with a message at the bottom that reads, “Celebrate the Nation’s Collection at the National Gallery of Art.” The innocuous National Gallery ad fills an estimated third of the total permitted space at that site.
The National Gallery was also once featured on a Van Wagner wall sign at 1108 K St. NW. The ad touted the museum with another reprint of a famous painting from the Gallery’s collection, Monet’s The Houses of Parliament, Sunset. That PSA didn’t last, though, and the new wall art displays a 1,200-square-foot ad of a model posing for Jordan City.
Both Van Wagner and NPR deny that a gargantuan advertisement for a line of urban apparel, or any other replacement sign, is in the works for the side of the NPR building.
“We’re very conscious of our noncommercial public-service mission,” says Jessamyn Sarmiento, NPR spokesperson. “If there were to be anything new [for the wall-sign space], it would follow our on-air underwriting guidelines.”
Sarmiento says that Van Wagner would have to submit any new potential advertisement to NPR for approval. The sign would have to meet a strict, “noncommercial” set of criteria.
Whitby declines to discuss the agreements his company has with landlords. But he acknowledges that quasi-governmental oversight of NPR may result in unique concerns over the special sign on the building. He says that the National Gallery ad will remain on the NPR building for some time.
Whitby also says that the wall sign on NPR need not grow to its full size potential. “Somebody gives me a space that’s 20 by 20, I’m not obliged to fill the space,” Whitby says. ” That [National Gallery PSA] is a replication of a piece of art in that gallery. The painting has its own underlying relative dimensions.”
But activists doubt that the biggest advertising space in the District, a spot that looms large for thousands of commuter eyeballs each day, will forever remain a charity case.
“Noncommercial signs range from between 2 to 6 percent of total billboard ads,” says Tom Pelikan, Scenic America’s director of policy. “That sucker [NPR sign permit] is almost 10 times the size of your average starter house. Unless there’s a hard contract there, what’s to stop them from putting up a Chivas Regal sign tomorrow?”
This isn’t NPR’s first foray into wall-sign notoriety. NPR once placed a special sign touting itself on a building at the corner of Adams Mill Road and Calvert Street in Adams Morgan. After antagonizing neighborhood groups, the sign was removed. It later reappeared, somewhat wrinkled, at 1926 I St. NW. A sign bearing the slogan “United We Stand” has since replaced it at that site.
After its embarrassing snafu allowing special signs, the D.C. Council spent a contentious year in debate over regulating them. In all, the legislative demarche included three public hearings and a bewildering series of 18 emergency or temporary pieces of legislation. The bureaucratic flurry concluded with the council’s approval of a permanent moratorium on special signs on Dec. 18, 2001. The bill also repealed the council’s earlier attempt to impose an artwork review on the signs and limited where existing signs could be transferred—in the event of development, lease cancellation, or other hindrance—to downtown.
“We tried so hard to get in front of this issue,” says Ambrose.
The billboard deliberations showcased a growing enmity between representatives of two opposing wings of the council: At-Large Councilmember Phil Mendelson, a hero of neighborhood activists, and Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans, a three-term veteran whose coziness with business interests helped him amass nearly $1 million for his 1998 mayoral run.
In a sop to that constituency, Evans advanced legislation to allow the existing 32 special signs to stay where they are in perpetuity. Although Evans was the one to propose extending the November 2000 moratorium on new signs indefinitely, he also put forth the proposal to protect the investments of ad companies that had placed special signs in outlying parts of the District. If such companies lost their existing ad space to new development or other contingencies, they would be allowed to transfer the signs to available spots in the downtown core.
Making the ad companies whole, argued Evans, would keep District lawyers out of court defending indefensible and overzealous regulatory practices.
Mendelson called Evans’ argument a “red herring.” In turn, Evans asked if councilmembers would put their own money on a bet that the District would prevail in a court appointment with the advertisers.
Mendelson championed a pair of amendments to the moratorium that would have sent the Webbers, the Monets, and the yuppie garments packing. In a play backed by the activist set, Mendelson proposed giving sign companies five years to recoup their investments in the special signs. Once the amortization period expired, the signs would be taken down.
Billboard opponents claim that amortization is a standard approach employed by cities around the country and consistently upheld in the courts.
But a law that was originally intended to make life hard for billboards, the Highway Beautification Act of 1965, actually makes amortization a tricky process. Thanks to what Mendelson calls effective lobbying by the billboard industry, cash compensation is required to remove billboards that sit in federal highway corridors. Such corridors constitute a big chunk of territory in the District, including Connecticut Avenue, K Street, New York Avenue, and many other major thoroughfares.
Mendelson wanted to require a “withering away” of the special signs outside of the federal highway web after an amortization period of five years, and a ban on transferring the signs into these protected areas.
Evans said the Mendelson amendments went too far. “Essentially, we have limited the amount of signs, and [by restricting where existing signs can be moved] we have limited them to a geographic area,” Evans said in arguing against the amendments.
Mendelson’s activist-friendly phaseout plan failed by a single vote, and the proposal prohibiting sign transfers into federal highway areas lost by three votes. Evans and the ad lobby prevailed, in a legislative body that each year becomes more partial to big business.
The swing vote on the phaseout proposal, says Hargrove, was cast by council Chair Linda Cropp, who had encouraged the anti-sign lobby with statements hostile to the cause of the ad companies. Cropp said nothing about the signs during the council debate on the issue.
Ambrose, who voted against Mendelson’s amendments, says she is satisfied with the council’s solution to the special-sign conundrum. She says that sign attrition will occur as the industry transfers its wall signs downtown. And Ambrose predicts that booming development downtown will eventually eliminate all of the available blank walls: “The moratorium guarantees that over time, probably within five or 10 years, there’s not going to be any room for those signs.”
Neighborhood activists see it differently. They say that the transfer rules and the potential cash compensations sign companies can rake in if the District tries to bring down signs will, as Schwartz says, “enrich the lucky permit-holders for life.”
Ward 4 Councilmember Adrian Fenty, who votes for neighborhood interests as consistently as Mendelson, said during the debate, “We don’t like these signs. They are inconsistent and inappropriate with the city’s planning over the last few centuries.”
Schwartz notes that she voted for the Evans proposal because “at least the legislation does put a moratorium on these wall signs or billboards.”
No pro-business action ever takes place in D.C. government without an obvious overlapping of interests lurking right behind the curtain. In this case, the cause of the sign companies received a friendly nudge in the form of lobbying by N. William Jarvis, the co-owner of CO Media LLC. Jarvis is the nephew of powerful former Ward 4 Councilmember Charlene Drew Jarvis and was the campaign manager for Evans’ recent run for mayor. His company holds nine of the 32 special-sign permits.
Not even Evans, however, will stand up and say that he actually likes the fabric banners that dot his district.
“The council has been put in a very difficult situation with this whole wall sign issue,” Evans said during the public meeting before the moratorium vote. “[The council] has really taken every step possible to limit these signs.”
Evans thinks that the council made the responsible choice by voting down a total ban or a phasing-out of the 32 wall signs, because he says these moves would have put the city in “harm’s way” legally.
“We have to be cautious with situations like these, or we’ll find ourselves back in ’93,” Evans says, referring to the dire financial straits the city was in at the time. “Especially with the recent economic downturn.”
Jarvis echoes Evans’ warning that the special-signs squabble could have produced lawsuits against the city. He also notes that Evans’ legislation narrowed the area where signs could be located and that the earlier DCRA regulations had already forced the ad companies to make concessions on the artwork.
“We could have fought [tightened regulations]. But we tried to be cooperative to get this thing finalized,” Jarvis says.
Although Evans says that there is no public support for the signs on the council, he has seen support in the community. He says a landlord with a property on Connecticut Avenue called the council because he was “absolutely furious” that he didn’t get a wall sign on his property. The landlord’s special-sign permit application, for the corner of Connecticut Avenue and Porter Street NW, was filed by CO Media and eventually rejected by the DCRA. Evans even says he has heard from people in the community who think the signs are aesthetically pleasing.
Whitby’s Van Wagner firm holds the rights to 15 of the giant wall signs, and Whitby claims that D.C. has much more stringent regulations for them than New York, Los Angeles, London, Toronto, and the other major metropolitan areas where Van Wagner places signs. Although Whitby says that getting the special-sign permits was a lengthy struggle—he traveled to D.C. several times to testify at hearings—he says he has no complaints about the process.
“The city council has a right to review legislation. I think that’s what the legislative process is all about. We had the right to make our comments, as did others,” Whitby says. “I thought we were [done with the process] a year and a half ago, and it turned out that it took another year and a half.”
Whitby says that the special signs will reflect good taste, mostly because of D.C.’s regulations. He argues that the emphasis on pictorial ads reduces the number of potential advertisers and will prevent “loud and bold” advertising copy.
“The regulations are limiting. But they also mean that the artwork can be less obtrusive and more interesting than the classic highway billboard,” Whitby says.
Whitby says that from the window of his office in New York, he can see a Banana Republic window wall sign on Third Avenue that is similar to the ads Van Wagner has in the District.
“It’s a soft-sell, discreet, easy-to-look-at ad,” Whitby says. “I think it looks better than a yet-to-be-demolished building.”
Washington’s current wall signs are not drab, doltish pitches for car dealerships or cheap hotels. Like the magazine ads Whitby also compares them to, the special signs work like tractor beams on roving eyes. Even Washingtonians who loathe Banana Republic and find its cryptic black-and-white model shots annoying won’t be able to avoid glancing at the ads.
The visual appeal of the special signs is both their greatest virtue and their biggest liability. It’s hard to bemoan the loss of the dreary brick walls that the slick signs have largely replaced. Even special-sign opponents concede that the National Gallery ads have been “kind of pretty.” On the other hand, the signs are much more noticeable than traditional billboards. The council actually debated whether giant signs with attractive models would be so distracting that they could cause car crashes.
The real question over special-sign aesthetics is how much the artwork will change now that the legislative skirmishes have subsided. The Constitution proved impossible to work around during the council’s aborted foray into controlling the signs’ content.
A good deal of leeway exists for the pictorial ads. Although there are no indications that this will occur, neighborhood activists are already pointing up the potential irony of a liquor ad appearing in a spot once occupied by an anti-drunk-driving PSA.
And, though the council has tried to engineer a global resolution to the dispute, future controversies will likely flare up over individual signs that rankle residents in various neighborhoods.
Actually, that’s already happening. During the moratorium debate, Ward 1’s Graham introduced an amendment calling for rejection of a special sign in Adams Morgan. Graham claimed that the sign, slated for 18th and California Street NW, was less than 200 feet from the Marie H. Reed Community Learning Center.
“I don’t want schoolchildren to look at God only knows what on that sign,” Graham said. The amendment failed, and a banner is expected to appear in the coming months.
Aesthetically embattled locals seeking expertise on sign removal may want to consult with Capitol Hill resident Frank Reed, a longtime member of the Capitol Hill Association of Merchants and Professionals (CHAMPS).
A billboard on the corner of Pennsylvania Avenue and 6th Street SE caught the group’s attention in the mid-’80s. Reed says the billboard was one of the “last eyesores on the Hill,” so CHAMPS brought its considerable legal expertise to bear in bringing down the sign.
The sign was on the grandfathered list of legal billboard sites and was owned by Rollins Outdoor Advertising (a company that has since been purchased by Revere National Corp. Inc.). Reed’s group did its research on billboard rules and kept its eyes on the aging billboard.
Reed says that CHAMPS found a regulation decreeing that once a billboard was taken down it couldn’t be put back up. When its members saw workers for Rollins come to the site to repair the billboard’s rusting metal superstructure, Reed’s group made its move. They called the police, who halted work on the site.
CHAMPS claimed that Rollins was breaking the rules by erecting a new billboard. It enlisted the testimony of a structural engineer to argue to the D.C. government that the rusted metal supports had deteriorated to such a degree that the billboard couldn’t be repaired, that the sign was actually being replaced. The argument prevailed, and Rollins was told to vacate the billboard site.
But the conflict had not run its course. Jack Mahoney, another lawyer allied with CHAMPS, had an office across the street from the billboard site. According to Reed, Mahoney was working late one night when he heard suspicious noises across the street. When Mahoney looked out his window, he spied a work crew attempting to hoist a new billboard platform.
“They had sent a crew to put a billboard up in the darkness,” Reed says. CHAMPS called the police, and the billboard work crew was sent packing once again.
“After that, they finally threw in the towel. They went away, never to be seen or heard from again,” Reed says. CP
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Photographs by Darrow Montgomery.