Digital billboards may soon grace the facades of some of downtown Baltimore’s most visible buildings with approval this week from the city’s Planning Commission.
The commissioners voted 6-2, with one member abstaining, in favor of approving six of 11 signs proposed for the city’s downtown business district. City planners raised concerns about the remaining five signs, triggering further review.
The signs, slated for some of downtown’s most visible spots, such as the side of Power Plant Live! and a major gateway on Lombard Street, are not without controversy. Several residents who attended the Planning Commission’s Thursday night meeting decried the proposal.
Barbara Valeri, president of the Towers at Harbor Court Condominium Association, said the billboards will be visible to residential areas despite promises to the contrary from sign supporters.
“I can tell you that I just looked out my window and at the Sheraton,” Valeri said of one proposed sign location. “I can see clearly where that billboard will be and so can all the other residents in my building.”
For the last two decades, Baltimore has eschewed new billboards. In 2000, Mayor Martin O’Malley signed a bill capping the city’s billboard count at 900. Then, a coalition of city residents, including a then 12-year-old girl, led the push for the ban, which was the first bill O’Malley signed after taking office.
But a sign ordinance passed by Baltimore City Council last fall cleared the way for the downtown signs. That ordinance, passed with almost no discussion by the council, created a district where signs are permitted. The zone is bounded largely by Howard Street to the west, Baltimore Street to the north, President Street to the east and Pratt Street to the south. The district continues south to Conway Street along the Inner Harbor.
Shelonda Stokes, president of the Downtown Partnership of Baltimore, said the billboards present the city with an opportunity to promote local events and help revitalize the downtown area. The partnership presented the plans to the Planning Commission on behalf of building owners who hope to host the signs.
“We’re talking about 144 acres, 11 signs over 2.5 miles,” she said. “Which is 11 opportunities to promote art, information and advertising to showcase our unique neighborhoods and we’re doing this on underutilized facades on these select buildings.”
The plan presented Thursday called for 11 signs ranging from 680 to 1,800 square feet on nine buildings. All are proposed for locations that are major transportation corridors.
In their submission to the Planning Commission, the partnership argued the signs create “light, vitality and activity.” Digital signs will promote tourism, economic development and city branding, the submission argued.
“Digital signage positivity correlates with lower crime, higher pedestrian activity, enlivened streetscape experience — all of which is needed in our post-COVID recovery in downtown Baltimore,” the proposal stated.
City planning staff recommended approval for much of the plan, which requires the signs to meet three criteria: They will not increase traffic congestion, add to the clutter of the area or be incongruous with the design of the area they are located.
Planners recommended reducing the size of several of the proposed billboards to align with those points. A proposed cluster of three billboards at the corner of Lombard and Charles streets received the most negative feedback. Planners suggested reducing the size of one sign and removing another altogether.
The largest sign proposed, an 1,800-square-foot billboard above the historic Farmers & Merchants National Bank building, now the Crafty Crab, was recommended for approval.
“It will not negatively impact the architecture of the pedestrian experience of historic buildings, as it will not be visible at the pedestrian level,” said city planner Caitlin Audette.
A billboard proposed for the facade of the Sheraton Hotel at Charles and Conway streets proved the most controversial with residents who attended Thursday’s discussion in opposition to the plan. The sign is visible to the Towers at Harbor Court at 10 E. Lee St. The condominium building overlooks the Inner Harbor to the east and downtown Baltimore to the north.
Valeri, who represents the building’s tenants, expressed concerns about the billboards causing car accidents and said too little research or analysis about the possible impacts on crime reduction and light pollution was presented.
Numerous others attended Thursday’s meeting in favor of the proposed signs. Some suggested the billboards could inspire local artists and children to get their work onto a big screen.
Zed Smith, the CEO of The Cordish Companies, which owns the Power Plant at 601 E. Pratt St., said the billboards are a “tremendous opportunity to bring new tenants in and bring some new energy to the city.”
The CEO said it could help the building, which has struggled with vacancies the past several years, attract new tenants and showcase the property.
“It can only be a big win, not only for us, but for the city,” he said.
Councilman Eric Costello, who sits on the Planning Commission, championed the legislation creating the downtown sign district. Costello proposed the compromise agreed upon by the board Thursday.
The District 11 representative said he felt it was necessary to allow more time for business owners, stakeholders and the community to share their input about proposed changes. Many said during the meeting they had not been alerted to size reductions or the possible elimination of billboards.
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Amy Jordan, property manager at 36 S. Charles St., represented one such property. She said “there was no indication” the building’s billboard was going to be eliminated, but planning staff recommended it be removed because it would be “incongruous with the existing design of the building and creates visual clutter in the area.”
“This is the first time I am hearing this,” Jordan said. “This is something we’ve been interested in from the start. We are willing to do whatever we need to do to make this happen for our building.”
The Planning Commission advanced the following locations Thursday: 100 S. Charles St., 30 Light St., 300 S. Charles St., 55 Market Place, 204 E. Lombard St. and 601 E. Pratt St. It tabled discussion on 100 S. Charles St. (east elevation), 100 E. Pratt St. (northeast), 100 E. Pratt St. (northwest), 124 Market Place and 36 S. Charles St.
Victor Clark Jr., a citizen representative on the commission, abstained from the vote.
Even with the Planning Commission’s approval, it could take up to a year for signs to appear downtown, according to a statement released Friday by the Downtown Partnership. The approved signs must still receive permits from the city.
The property owners who will host the billboards have picked their own media companies and will contract with them privately, according to the statement. The partnership will also enter into agreements with those media companies and will manage the “community space” on the signs, which is time reserved for “civic and artistic content,” according to the partnership. The billboards will be used commercially, but will also offer branded content for special events such as the recent CIAA basketball tournament, the partnership said.
Partnership officials declined to answer a question about whether they will receive a share of the revenue created by the billboards. They also did not provide more detail about how much time will be devoted to civic content on the signs.