Some neighbors not thrilled with Verizon Center’s giant electronic billboards

October 20, 2013

From 6 a.m. to midnight daily, the new 50-by-24-foot screens at Verizon Center flash images of the District’s sports teams, their sponsors and coming events.

To some, the new electronic signs hanging from the arena give an illusion of New York’s Times Square and add a sense of vibrancy to the neighborhood, but to other residents and businesses in Penn Quarter, the billboards have created frustration and exacerbated a two-year battle with Verizon Center.

“It’s like having a giant television set outside my window,” said Catherine Sickles, who lives two blocks from the arena and has a direct view of the new screens from her penthouse apartment at the Lexington at Market Square. “It is really bright. It is a lot of images—the same images over and over again.”

The city approved the new signs last year after months of public debate over the request by Washington sports mogul Ted Leonsis to erect the animated billboards on the Seventh Street NW side of Verizon Center. Residents and community leaders said then that they feared the signs would be intrusive. The D.C. Council, however, unanimously backed the proposal, with some members saying it was necessary to replace outdated billboards in one of the city’s growing entertainment districts.

The new signage allows Leonsis’s companyMonumental Sports and Entertainment, which owns and operates Verizon Center, to generate more advertising revenue, which could lead to $8 million to $10 million in tax revenue for the District, council member Yvette M. Alexander (D-Ward 7) wrote last year in a memo to fellow council members.

Monumental, which owns the Washington Capitals, Wizards and Mystics, also pays taxes on the billboards’ revenue, said Randall Boe, the company’s executive vice president.

The billboards, which went live last month, are more than a new revenue source, Boe said. They will help make Washington’s sports teams more competitive and create excitement and fan support among visitors and residents. They fit, he said, with what the neighborhood around Verizon Center has become in the past decade.

“This has not been a sleepy residential neighborhood,” Boe said. “This has always been, and always planned to be, a vibrant, exciting entertainment district. There is plenty of activity, and there is plenty of light and all sorts of stuff, and we are a portion of that. Our signs are relatively small, they fit very well with the character of the building, and they fit with the character of the neighborhood.”

But some residents say the full-motion billboards are out of place in an area that is considered historic and that is home to the National Portrait Gallery.

“They say this is Washington’s Times Square, but the people that live here don’t feel that way,” said Kevin Wilsey, general manager at the Lansburgh apartments at Eighth and E streets NW. “We are not opposed to arenas and bars and things like that. People live down here for those kind of activities and conveniences.”

Wilsey and other residents will have the opportunity to voice their concerns Monday night at an Advisory Neighborhood Commission meeting.

“It’s like we are actually watching a movie. I think people are sort of shocked about how vibrant and in their face it sort of is,” said Wilsey, who has lived in the neighborhood for 17 years and is a representative on the ANC.

Mital Gandhi, president of the condominium association at the Residences at Gallery Place, which has 192 condos next to Verizon Center, said his residents also are concerned about the light from the screens flashing into their units. But for most of them, he said, the billboards debate has become more about getting Verizon Center to invest in security and keep the area clean.

“Why have these big billboards if you are not keeping the outside clean, if you are not patrolling the outside?” he said. “Our biggest concern is for them to be good neighbors, too.”

Some residents say they are considering moving out of the neighborhood. Others worry that their property values will drop.

Sickles, 43, a human resources executive who works from home, said she and her husband are planning to move because the appeal of their apartment was having a view of the city.

“At night, it is gorgeous, and now we have to pretty much close our blinds if we don’t want to see flashing images on our walls,” she said.

Boe said Verizon Center wants to be a good neighbor, has listened to the concerns and wants to work with residents to “make life easier and better for folks.”

“There are a handful of people who have been opposed to the signs since the very beginning. They are opposed to any signs. And that is their right,” Boe said. “But in the end, this was an issue that was debated a number of times over the last two years.”

Luz Lazo writes about transportation and development. She has recently written about the challenges of bus commuting, Metro’s dark stations, and the impact of sequestration on air travel.
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