Updated 12:54 p.m.: This story has been updated to reflect the news that the Council committee has made a decision on this issue.
A City Council committee has delayed a vote on whether to allow a billboard to rise on what is now parkland beside the Schuylkill Expressway, a move critics say would mar one of Philadelphia’s most prized open spaces and dismantle barriers to other commercial uses on the city’s public lands.
Councilman Curtis Jones Jr.’s proposal, which Council’s Rules Committee had been scheduled to consider Wednesday, would change the zoning for a narrow strip of riverfront land hugging West Fairmount Park from its current designation for parks and open space, where billboards are prohibited, to an industrial designation, where they are allowed.
It also would exempt the land, which sits between the Strawberry Mansion Bridge and Montgomery Drive, from city rules outlawing billboards near parks and historic sites to allow for a “double-faced … digital advertising sign” there.
Jones said during the Rules Committee hearing that he was holding the bill for possible consideration at a later date in response to opposition to the legislation from constituents and colleagues, including former Mayor Bill Green, whom he introduced as a mentor and said “took him to the woodshed.”
“We’re going to take a deep breath, take a deep look, so we can all be family at the end of the day,” he said.
The expressway, to the parcel’s west, and CSX Corp., to its east, share ownership of the land that would accommodate the new billboard, according to a CSX spokeswoman.
Even if it is not under the same city ownership as the rest of the fields and woodlands of Fairmount Park, a flashing digital billboard on the property would spoil views throughout the sprawling green enclave, said Jamie Gauthier, executive director of the nonprofit Fairmount Park Conservancy, which supports Philadelphia’s parks.
“Not only would this blight the park for the community immediately surrounding it, it would mar the view and enjoyment of the park for years to come and set a precedent that parkland — city-owned or not — can be rezoned for commercial uses,” she said this week in an email to Jones that was shared with the Inquirer and Daily News.
Jones’ legislation was prompted by Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia’s wish for the removal of an existing waterfront billboard near its new pediatric research tower beside the South Street Bridge, the councilman’s chief of staff, Joshua Cohen, said in an interview.
The sign — which currently displays an ad for a sandwich chain — is visible to northbound traffic on the expressway across the river, but hospital tower dwellers looking at the river through the new building’s windows see its metal-framed back. “It was obstructing their view,” Cohen said.
The billboard’s owner, New York-based Outfront Media Inc., agreed to remove the sign if it could build a new one on the parkland directly beside the expressway farther up the Schuylkill, and Jones agreed to help, Cohen said.
Playing a role in the councilman’s decision was an offer by Outfront to help support the Bill Pickett Riding Academy, a stable and horse-riding school in the park, in exchange for permission to erect the new sign, Cohen said.
Jones was also sympathetic to CHOP’s desire for a clearer vista and wanted to convert the wooded strip of land along the freeway to “its proper classification,” he said.
“It’s not in the park per se,” Cohen said.
Outfront spokeswoman Carly Zip declined to comment on the company’s plans.
CHOP spokeswoman Emily DiTomo confirmed that the hospital wanted the billboard gone but said the hospital played no role in its relocation.
“Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia supports efforts to move the billboard from its current location, reinforcing our ongoing commitment to the redevelopment of the Schuylkill River waterfront,” she said. “The owner of the billboard ultimately determines its location with approval from the city.”
Jones’ bill recalls legislation in 2016 to rezone wooded land adjacent to Pennypack Park along State Road in the city’s Holmesburg section to allow for a digital billboard visible to motorists on I-95. Although that bill passed, no sign has been built there.
It also comes as Center City’s Schuylkill waterfront evolves into one of Philadelphia’s most visited public spaces, rivaling Fairmount Park just up the river. The Schuylkill Banks trail has been gradually pushing south from the Art Museum area, passing through freshly landscaped plazas and over the river on stretches of boardwalk.
To finish its most recently completed segment, which extends from South Street to an area near Christian Street, the city last year acquired the land where the billboard that CHOP dislikes now stands, according to records filed with the city.
As part of the deal transferring the land from its previous owner, CSX, to the city, Outfront was granted easement for a billboard to remain on the property, according to the records.
Lucinda Hudson, executive director of the Parkside Association, said the West Philadelphia communities that her group represents near Fairmount Park shouldn’t bear the brunt of any agreement to remove that sign.
“Parkside is not a flyby neighborhood here to take what Center City doesn’t want,” Hudson said. “West Fairmount Park is a gem in our city, and any development should directly benefit our community. This billboard will be nothing but an eyesore.”