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Accountabilityby Mark Reutter and Fern Shen6:08 pmOct 25, 20210

As Pittsburgh decides to dim, downtown Baltimore prepares to light up

Among the questions raised by the push to erect high-energy-consumption digital ads: Is mobile technology destined to render these large, inert billboards as obsolete as the sign painter?

Above: Once known as “hell with the lid off” for the heat and flames that rose from its steel mills, Pittsburgh has enacted the county’s first Dark Sky ordinance. (dailykos.com)

Just weeks before the City Council and Mayor Brandon Scott approved a bill to create a special downtown district for large digital billboards, Pittsburgh’s elected officials moved in a decidedly different direction.

In early September, the city council approved a measure introduced by Mayor Bill Peduto to reduce light pollution in public parks, city-owned buildings and along the streets.

The legislation mandates the use of “dark sky” principles – such as motion sensors, dimmers and timers, and cooler temperature bulbs – to reduce artificial light that affects human health by disrupting the circadian rhythm, harms plants and animals and wastes energy, while having little or no effect on pedestrian safety or street crime. (A 2020 study in Chicago actually showed a 21% increase in reported crimes in brightly lit alleyways.)

Pittsburgh is now developing plans to retrofit or replace 35,000 city streetlights with lower-temperature LED bulbs that look warmer and softer and improve night vision by reducing glare, according to the Carnegie Mellon University researchers who helped draft the legislation.

Mayor Peduto says the bill not only shows “our commitment to the reduction of energy consumption and elimination of waste” in an era of global warming, but will bring “equity” to Black neighborhoods where overlighting occurs most frequently.

The Dark Sky ordinance has brought the city national coverage and plaudits from Ruskin Hartley, executive director of the International Dark-Sky Association, who argues that residents in all major cities should be able to see the night sky unimpeded by reflected artificial light.

“Pittsburgh is the first city to take a principles-based approach to legislation,” Hartley said. “We foresee this approach serving as a model for other municipalities.”

Overcoming Lady Bird

Baltimore is a late joiner of the electronic billboard club. Atlanta, Chicago, Denver, Detroit, Los Angeles, New York, Washington, D.C., and, of course, Las Vegas earlier succumbed to the lure of  revenue dollars promised by such media giants as JCDecaux Group, Clear Channel Outdoor, Lamar and niche players like Orange Barrel Media of Columbus, Ohio.

For decades, the outdoor advertising industry had lobbied hard to undermine the gains made with the 1965 passage of the Highway Beautification Act.

Championed by former First Lady Lady Bird Johnson, the act took aim at the billboard blight that accompanied the expansion of the interstate highway system in post-war America, setting limitations on the number of signs that could be placed along expressways as well as their size, spacing and lighting.

In Baltimore, the fight against billboards was focused on low-income neighborhoods where the pileup of fading signs cluttered the likes of Wilkens Avenue, Pulaski Highway, Franklin-Mulberry and other arteries.

The reform effort ended with a compromise fashioned by the City Council in 2000 – a moratorium on new billboards in return for the grandfathering in of existing billboards.

Nationally, the industry scored a key victory when the Federal Highway Administration, under President George W. Bush, ruled that digital billboards do not violate the beautification act, allowing companies to build them along federal highways.

More important to advertisers’ bottom line was the emerging technology. Created from computer programs and software, digital billboards permitted the display of five or six ads rotating on the same structure, eliminating the labor-intensive cost of installing and maintaining hand-rolled or -painted fixed image signs.

With the sign painters' craft replaced by computer software and digital lights, the outdoor ad industry reinvented itself, but may soon be challenged by increasingly sophisticated mobile advertising. (collectorsweekly.com)

With the demise of the sign painters’ craft, the outdoor ad industry reinvented itself. Its digital dominance may be challenged not just by more dark sky ordinances, but increasingly sophisticated “mobile application advertising.” (collectorsweekly.com)

Chicago’s Experience

Reinventing itself as “digital out of home” (DOOH) advertising, the industry began cultivating cities in need of  revenue in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis.

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s deal with JCDecaux to place 1,300 digital billboards on city-owned land next to expressways caused a furor.

The agreement with the French advertiser gave the city an immediate influx of $15 million, which Emanuel used to plug a deficit in his budget.

Downtown residents’ association: We were blindsided by digital billboard plan (10/18/21)

After steering the billboard bill to passage, Costello is honored by Downtown Partnership (10/20/21)

An investigation by the Chicago Tribune found that the financial benefit for the city had been vastly overstated. The city would not even begin to collect its share of ad revenues until JCDecaux had recouped all of the money it spent to install the digital signs.

Baltimore's Inner Harbor just south of Pratt Street at night. (tripsavvy.com)

Baltimore’s Inner Harbor just south of Pratt Street at night. (tripsavvy.com)

A Drop in the Bucket

In Baltimore, an ordinance setting up a district for digital billboards was passed unanimously by the City Council last Monday and signed the next day by Mayor Brandon Scott.

It will leave the city with no direct share of the gross revenues from the placement of 21 wall installations and wraparounds on buildings sited along Pratt, Lombard and Baltimore streets between Howard Street (on the west) and President Street (on the east).

Instead, a city with an operating budget of $3.1 billion will get $303,405 in yearly taxes “when all the signs are operational,” Budget Director Bob Cenname told the Council last month. (Cenname based his figure on the city tax of $15 per square foot for a rotating electronic outdoor display.)

Still up in the air is who exactly will pay for the installation and upkeep of the 20,227 square feet of prospective signage.

Still up in the air is who exactly will pay for the installation and upkeep of the 20,227 square feet of prospective signage.

The quasi-public Downtown Partnership of Baltimore (DPOB) both lobbied for the bill and will manage the advertising program. In return, it says it will receive a 1% cut of the ad revenue, with another 4% going to four arts and entertainment districts – Station North, Highlandtown, Pennsylvania Avenue, and Bromo Tower (which the DPOB manages).

That leaves 96% of the revenues to be shared by the ad companies and building owners. DPOB’s President and CEO Shelonda Stokes has not shared any estimates of expected revenues nor disclosed a service agreement with a consultant who helped set up the program.

But an hint of total revenues comes from the Finance Department, which says that outdoor electronic signage on two downtown city buildings – the Convention Center and Hyatt Hotel Garage – should yield $400,000 a year.

Based on that estimate, advertising on the 21 building should produce about $4.2 million in yearly revenues, of which $210,000 would be diverted to DPOB and the four entertainment districts.

The advertising should produce about $4.2 million in yearly revenues, of which $210,000 would be diverted to DPOB and the four entertainment districts.

The artificial light coming from 30- and 40-foot-high digital billboards flashing above some of downtown Baltimore’s brightest-lit streets is not just a plus for safety and walkability, according to Stokes

The ads, to be rotated with public service announcements and public art, is all about “bringing motion, art and light into downtown in a vibrant way,” she told WJZ-TV.

“This is a major attraction and a game changer for our city,” she promised.

Too Late

While Stokes isn’t concerned about light pollution, saying downtown apartment dwellers will not directly face the billboards and arrangements will be made to dim the lights during certain hours of the night, the future of digital billboards is no certainty.

Rapid advances in digital networks pose a growing challenge to “brick-and-mortar” billboards, no matter how colorful or artistic.

Mobile advertising may quickly take the DOOH business in a totally different direction, incorporating the voice, text, multimedia messaging, billing touchpoints and other features of cellphones carried by nearly every adult American.

As noted in Marketing Dive, the unrivaled amount of information that can be gleaned about a user makes a mobile device the ultimate ad-targeting tool.

Knowledge of a user’s movements, for example, can create a perfectly timed inducement, such as a discount at a restaurant or store as a user enters a certain location.

The interactive nature of a mobile phone removes the barriers that currently separate a consumer from an ad that’s rotating on a building in the next block, such as the capability to respond immediately with a click to call, click to SMS and click to purchase.

Ultimately, Baltimore may have entered the electronic billboard market too late and may wind up with no more than short-term benefits for itself and for downtown property owners threatened by newer and flashier real estate south and east of President Street.

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