A proposal to turn the walls of Nationals Park into a lucrative revenue source by allowing flashing digital billboards has revived a debate about the impact of such displays on the city’s monumental appeal.
Some city officials say the signs are appropriate in entertainment districts and can add value to neighborhood identity as long as they are tastefully done. Critics, including many who live in the neighborhoods surrounding the ballpark, say the gigantic advertising screens threaten their peace and views of the city’s iconic buildings, such as the U.S. Capitol.
“Let what happens in Vegas stay in Vegas,” said George Clark of the Federation of Citizens Associations of the District of Columbia in a plea to the D.C. Council. “That is the place for huge and glitzy electronic signs, not the nation’s capital.”
The Nationals have been lobbying the city to allow the installation of 10 LED screens that would generate $3 million to $5 million annually, according to club officials. The revenue would boost its ability to acquire star players and raise its status with Major League Baseball, Alan Gottlieb, a partner in the team, said at a public hearing on the proposal.
“The cost of players continues to rise,” Gottlieb said. “With costs ever increasing, we need to find avenues to be able to generate additional revenue.”
But critics say that if the council approves the ballclub’s request to add displays as large as 35 feet by 34 feet, it will open the door to a proliferation of the signs.
“This signals a tsunami of billboards around the city,” said Meg Maguire, a member of the Committee of 100 on the Federal City, a planning and land use advocacy group.
Maguire said the city should take a lesson from the experience of Chinatown residents where 50-foot-by-24-foot screens were erected at Verizon Center three year ago. Some residents complain that the screens, which flash images of sponsors, coming events and the city’s sports teams, amount to intrusive giant TV screens outside their windows.
Verizon Center is seeking to renew its permits for the screens.
“The citizens don’t want billboard pollution. They don’t want the constant flashing on office windows and residences. People in this city don’t want this,” Maguire said.
The legislation being reviewed by the D.C. Council would establish a standardized review process for issuing permits and renewals for signs in locations designated entertainment areas, such as Nationals Park. A mayoral working group is also developing recommendations on a citywide policy to regulate billboards and other exterior signs.
Proponents say the bill, which could be voted on as soon as Dec. 6, takes into consideration issues from the Verizon Center screens, such as how to measure light pollution, and sets requirements for how to reduce brilliance.
The bill, revised after a Nov. 14 public hearing, sets restrictions on size, location and use of full-motion video. It would allow five digital displays — half the number the Nationals requested — and prohibit the billboards in areas parallel to residential buildings and directly facing South Capitol Street to protect the U.S. Capitol viewshed.
It also leaves the door open for the mayor to designate new entertainment areas where LED screens could be approved. At the Nov. 14 hearing, Melinda Bolling, the city’s director of consumer and regulatory affairs, identified the soccer stadium at Buzzard Point, the new sports facility planned at the St. Elizabeths East campus and the Walter E. Washington Convention Center as other potential districts.
“I don’t think the signs make sense in every place, but there are some places [such as] a Major League Baseball stadium, where it does,” said council member Charles Allen (D-Ward 6), one of the bill’s sponsors.
“The city has always planned for this area to be a very active entertainment space,” he said. “That includes a lot of outdoor activity, and I think signs can be a part of that.”
Gottlieb said the plan is to phase in the $5 million installation of the signs to have the project completed by 2018, when Nationals Park hosts the MLB All-Star Game. Installing LED signs is among the many things some sports facilities are doing to find new revenue streams. There are LED signs outside Boston’s Fenway Park, for example.
Gottlieb said the screens will add vitality to the neighborhood, which since the ballpark’s 2008 opening has transformed from a blighted industrial corridor into one with office, residential, shopping and dining options.
“The more exciting we can make this area, the more vibrant we can make it, the more people want to come and live here, and that in itself should increase property values,” he said.
Council member Jack Evans (D-Ward 2) agrees and went further to say that the city should keep the option of adding more screens as it develops sports arenas.
“You look across the country, and it is frankly the norm to have signs like these at sports arenas,” Evans said. “They add to the vitality of it and certainly produce revenue, which is also important.”
The city would receive tax money from the revenue generated from the advertising. The Nationals also would be required to play public service announcements, such as news, transit schedules and weather on the screens.
Objections remain. In Adams Morgan, Dupont Circle, Penn Quarter and the Southeast community where the stadium is located, residents and community activists are urging the city to reject the proposal. Charles Ellis III of the Dupont Circle Citizens Association asked the council to oppose the “spread of such billboards anywhere else in the city.”
The Advisory Neighborhood Commission where the park is located signed a resolution opposing the billboards, citing concerns about light pollution into planned and existing residences and the effect on viewsheds.
Michael Stevens, president of the Capitol Riverfront Business Improvement District, said his board has not taken a position on the Nationals proposal because it was not briefed on it. But he said some property owners have expressed concern.
Andy Litsky, chairman of ANC 6D, said the city hasn’t given the community enough time to study the plan. He said the bill has changed so much since the Nov. 14 hearing that it should have a hearing of its own.
“This is being done so quickly that it does not provide an opportunity for open discussion,” he said. “This is disgusting.”