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Illegal, Obnoxious and Becoming Extinct

illegal advertising signage new york city building

Have you noticed that advertising on sidewalk construction sheds, hawking everything from beer to banks to cell phones, has started to disappear? Advertising signs on sidewalk sheds have always been illegal, and now the city’s Department of Buildings (DOB) is cracking down on these brazen violations of the law.

Buildings Commissioner Patricia J. Lancaster traces the city’s new enforcement policy to the spring of 2006 when the signs were so prevalent that they seemed to be breeding at night. That was the same time that the MAS website launched its well-received “Shoot It Down!” competition in partnership with real estate blog

Contestants were asked to submit digital photos of illegal or obnoxious ads and the winner was the one deemed most egregious. Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer’s office researched 44 of these offending signs and found that 79 percent of them had never been issued a violation, even though they were clearly illegal. DOB is now considering creating its own “gallery of shame” by posting pictures of illegal signs on its website.

Safety First – Sidewalk sheds are mandated by law and are intended solely for safety purposes during construction. They are unattractive and interfere with pedestrian traffic, but public safety is a priority no one can argue with. Allowing advertising on them, however, merely serves to encourage the building owner to leave the shed up and extend the advertiser’s presence onto public property — the sidewalk. The MAS applauds the enforcement efforts of DOB in this regard, but there is much work to be done.

The city zoning resolution defines an advertising sign as one that “directs attention to goods and services at a location other than where the sign is located.” An “accessory sign” identifies an establishment housed within the building. There are restrictive rules for accessory signs, but they make sense and are allowed.

A double standard is exposed when DOB allows greatly oversized signs on sidewalk sheds that promote what is in the building or what will be there in the future, like the brash signs that advertise $10 million condominiums under construction. DOB should enforce the law uniformly and the oversized signs should also be considered violations.

Another, similar category of signs also deserves scrutiny: advertising on construction scaffolding, and the netting that covers it. It is illegal, yet we see huge ads wrapped around buildings all the time, sometimes on city landmarks. If the city can successfully eliminate the advertising on sidewalk sheds, it should also be able to aggressively tackle ads on scaffolding. Even though these ads are temporary in nature, they are offensive and intrusive.

The Long Fight – Still, progress is being made. To its credit, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey has seen the light. Due to an outcry from preservationists, and community and elected officials, the Port Authority decided not to go forward with a series of ads for insurance giant GEICO. The ads would have been placed on the George Washington Bridge toll plaza and along bridge approaches, and would have obscured the iconic landmark span.

The campaign against illegal advertising is popular with New Yorkers because it is so closely related to the issues of livability and the preservation of the city’s unique streetscapes. It is a campaign we will continue even if we have to fight it one sign at a time.