Art Commission Approves Advertising Kiosks Despite Public Opposition

By Brendan McDevitt, Scenic Philadelphia Intern

At a public hearing on November 1st the Philadelphia Art Commission voted 7-to-1 to grant approval for a private company to install 100 advertising kiosks on city sidewalks, despite objections from several neighborhood organizations and many residents. The kiosks still need approval from PennDOT, the agency responsible for ensuring Philadelphia’s compliance with federal outdoor advertising regulations which would apply to most of the streets where the kiosks are proposed.  Scenic Philadelphia will be coordinating with PennDOT and federal regulators to ensure that any proposed kiosks do not violate federal laws.

NYC sidewalk kiosks
Sidewalk kiosks in New York City have become hubs for loitering and illicit activities.

During the hearing the chairman of the Philadelphia Art Commission, Alan Greenberger, asked representatives from Intersection, an outdoor advertising firm, and the city’s Office of Transportation and Infrastructure Systems (OTIS) a very direct question: “What would you like us to do?” Unfortunately, the Art Commission gave the advertising firm and OTIS exactly what they came for. A motion for approval of the ‘Link’ advertising kiosks in Philadelphia was passed swiftly by a majority of the commission.

Intersection and OTIS proposed several possible sites for the kiosks on the sidewalks of wide streets, such as Market and Arch, as well as the narrow streets of Old City. Their presentation highlighted the free Wi-Fi, outreach to local businesses, public service announcements about civic events, and cell phone charging ports that the kiosks would bring to people, but failed to address many of the concerns members of the public and neighborhood groups expressed about the kiosks.  There was additional concern expressed by civic leaders about the lack of public notice and input on a proposal that would have a profound impact on the public space.

A representative from the Crosstown Coalition of thirty civic associations testified to the Art Commission that no one from OTIS or Intersection had reached out to their neighborhoods about these proposed kiosks.  These civic associations reached a unanimous decision that without any information they would not support the kiosks. A resident of Old City, Rob Kettell, frankly told the art commission that the kiosks would not fit in Old City,  explaining that the streets of Old City are too narrow and crowded to accommodate these 9-foot tall and 3-foot wide kiosks. He also felt that an environment with these continuously changing ads would be hazardous to pedestrians and drivers on Old City’s streets. Mr. Kettell said that the kiosks’ unsightly appearance would not look natural with Old City’s rustic and authentic appearance.

Scenic Philadelphia’s executive director, Mary Tracy, testified about the potential degradation these kiosks could have on Philadelphia’s historic appearance and character. Ms. Tracy said that the city needs to be aware of the numerous public nuisance issues the kiosks have led to in New York and asked the commission to consider the long-term impact that these kiosks may have on Philadelphia. She ended her testimony with an appeal to consider the impact that taking away public space would have on the people of Philadelphia.

The president of The Society Hill Civic Association, Roseanne Loesch, also testified to the art commission that her group was very concerned about the lack of public awareness and participation in the kiosk program approval process. She asked for public hearings regarding the kiosks, and posed a final question to the commission: why should private, for profit businesses be given public space for ads?

Only one member of the commission, painter Joe Laragione, found it disconcerting that of nearly 200 letters the commission received regarding the kiosk proposal, all but 3 were opposed to the proposal.  He remembered what other members of the commission seem to have forgotten: the purpose of art commissions is to steward public space on behalf of the public and to protect and promote the good visual character of the city’s streetscapes. Mr. Laragione’s stated that if such a large portion of people in Philadelphia did not want these kiosks, then they should not be approved. At this point art commission chair, Alan Greenberger, again asked Intersection what they wanted from the Philadelphia Art Commission. Intersection clearly stated this time what they came for: approval for the kiosks.  Despite Joe Langione’s sincere words and great public testimony, a motion for the approval of the kiosks was passed by the majority of the art commission.

Brendan McDevitt is a Temple University student with a keen interest in urban development and public relations. This was his first time attending an art commission hearing.