Sky-high billboard is part of apartment plan at South Philly meat plant

Billboard mogul Dominick Cipollini wants to replace a blighted meat plant he owns in South Philadelphia's Pennsport neighborhood with a new enclave of apartments, shops, and offices.

Another big part of the plan: a billboard.

Cipollini, owner of Keystone Outdoor Advertising Co., is proposing a 120-foot-high digital sign visible from Interstate 95 as part of his plan for what is now a distribution facility for the cold-cut company Freda Corp.

The billboard would rise over a 30,000-square-foot retail and office building planned for the north end of the property, which stretches along Front Street between Reed and Wharton Streets, project architect Brian Newswanger said at a Pennsport Neighborhood Association meeting Tuesday night.

The plan also calls for a 48-unit apartment building and four townhouses on the 33,500-square-foot property.

Newswanger said revenue from the digital sign, which would replace a lower conventional billboard owned by Cipollini at the site, was needed to make parking — rather than rent-generating units — financially viable on the first floor of the five-story apartment building. Without that parking, the new building's tenants would increase competition for curbside spots, he said.

“We're looking at trying to do something that is good for the neighborhood, that will minimize the impact,” Newswanger said. “The billboard is part of that process.”

The proposed billboard’s distance from the ground and high-tech light-directing diodes also would make it less obtrusive for residents than the site’s current front-lit sign, Michael Tantala, an engineer specializing in signage, said at the meeting.

But the billboard’s height, visibility throughout the neighborhood, and changing digital imagery were roundly condemned by many at the session, with some saying the project should be scrapped if the sign had to be a component.

“You’re putting up this 120-foot eyesore,” said Sean Huggins, who lives near the project site. “It’s going to take away from the entire neighborhood.”

Cipollini, who did not attend Tuesday’s meeting, acquired an easement for the site’s current billboard for $400,000 in 2000, according to records filed with the city. A company under his control purchased the entire property for $1.3 million in March of this year, records show.

The current billboard, which displays an ad for the sports-bar chain Chickie's & Pete's, was clearly visible from I-95 until the early 2010s, when it was partly obscured by the construction of a sound-barrier wall, Newswanger said. The newly proposed digital sign’s height would restore that visibility, he said.

Cipollini’s team plans to ask city officials to approve an ordinance changing the development site’s zoning from one allowing only industrial and some commercial uses to one that explicitly permits residences and billboards of the types being proposed, Newswanger said. The team would commit to completing the entire project — not just the billboard — in negotiations with the city, he said.

But that commitment would be difficult for the city to enforce, Craig Schelter, a former Planning Commission director who now works as a private consultant for development projects, said in an interview Wednesday.

Developers can easily delay parts of projects indefinitely by claiming to be blindsided by changing market conditions, financing troubles, or other hardships, Schelter said.

“That’s a highly dangerous thing for the city to agree to,” he said.

City Councilman Mark Squilla, whose district includes the development site, said he would not discuss his position toward zoning changes or adjustments for the project until after his staff had a chance to work with community members and the developer on a mutually acceptable proposal.

Cipollini lawyer Vincent Mancini said at Tuesday’s meeting that the project’s benefits, including its potential to help revitalize a largely blighted industrial part of the neighborhood, should not be overlooked.

“This is not just a billboard,” he said.

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