Some residents of the Southwest waterfront fear the neighborhood could be pestered by flashing billboards after the D.C. Council on Tuesday passed a measure that allows the Washington Nationals to install massive LED ads on the baseball stadium’s exterior walls.
Questions remain about how the signs will affect the waterfront district, even though the legislation underwent several revisions to restrict the number, size and location of the billboards.
“It’s still a bad bill because it permits five gigantic, electronic, light-polluting, ad-spewing machines on the side of the Nats stadium,” said Meg Maguire, a member of The Committee of 100 on the Federal City — a nonprofit organization founded nearly a century ago to monitor development in the District. “The restrictions don’t take away the problem.”
The Committee of 100 on the Federal City is joined by Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner Andy Litsky in opposing the lighted signs — opposition that goes beyond where and how the signs will be placed, Ms. Maguire said in an interview.
“This comes at a time when we know that light pollution has an effect on human health,” she said. “We know that LED bulbs can be injurious to sleep, and now we’re putting up these massive machines. They’re going to pollute our beautiful, emerging, mixed-use communities.”
The measure allows the Nationals to erect five LED screens no larger than 38 feet by 25 feet outside the 8-year-old stadium. The team says billboards will generate up to $5 million a year in ad revenue — a tidy sum for a young club looking to make another playoff run and possibly pick up more talent along the way.
The team hopes to have the billboards in place for the 2018 MLB All-Star Game, which the Nationals are scheduled to host.
Council member Charles Allen, who represents the Ward 6 neighborhood where Nationals Park is located, said lawmakers made some concessions in revising the legislation to address criticism about the lighted signs since the first public hearing on the measure in November.
Originally, the bill called for 10 signs and had few restrictions on their placement. The revised bill, which the council passed 12-1 Tuesday, cuts the number of billboards in half and prohibits them from directly facing South Capitol Street or residential buildings.
Mr. Allen acknowledged that the legislation wouldn’t make everyone happy, but said there are enough provisions to quell any fears that the signs will start popping up all over the city.
He said those kinds of sings aren’t appropriate everywhere, but LED billboards make sense in a lively entertainment district with a baseball stadium.
But that wasn’t enough to persuade council member Elissa Silverman, the lone dissenting vote on the council.
“This thing was fast-tracked in a month,” the at-large independent told The Washington Times on Wednesday. “Perhaps there’s a time and place for them, but what’s the rush to judgment here?”
Ms. Silverman said she wants to know more about the signs’ impact on property values, how they could affect drivers and how they could change the character of the neighborhood.
Ms. Maguire pointed to Chinatown as an example of LED billboards degrading residents’ quality of life. The Verizon Center in 2012 was approved for an exemption of the city’s 1931 moratorium on issuing permits for large signs.
“Do you want that in your face night and day?” she said. “The excuse is that it will somehow enliven the public space, but that’s a problem best solved by urban designers, people who operate at a human scale. You don’t just call up a billboard company.”
And Ms. Silverman is still concerned about giant signs popping up across the District, despite provisions in the bill excepting the stadium from the mostly citywide ban on lighted billboards.
“There’s a legitimate fear that if you create a carve out for the Nats, it’s a Pandora’s box,” she said. “It’s not like that’s unfounded.”
Ms. Silverman said property owners near the stadium already have started lobbying for their own digital billboards.
With the bill likely to get final approval later this month, Ms. Maguire said she’s more focused on trying to fix what’s wrong with it. She held fast that The Committee of 100 would work in coming weeks to revise the bill before its second vote on Dec. 20.
“We understand that at this point, the votes to overturn aren’t there. We don’t like that, but there are other bad things in the bill that need to be corrected. We’re going to continue to tell people what this bill does,” she said. “We want this bad bill to be as good as it can when it comes out.”
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