U. Holmesburg Civic mulling billboard proposal

The Upper Holmesburg Civic Association did not formally endorse recent City Council legislation that advanced the planned installation of a new billboard alongside Interstate 95 just north of Pennypack Creek.

But the UHCA isn’t necessarily opposed to the billboard and remains interested in finding ways it might be used to benefit the community, according to the group’s president, Stan Cywinski.

Cywinski briefed residents about the billboard issue during the civic group’s monthly meeting last Thursday. Hours earlier Council had unanimously passed two bills in support of the billboard. One bill changed the zoning on a 2.5-acre parcel from “parks and open space” to “medium industrial.” The second bill established parameters for the dimensions of the billboard while establishing new land-use restrictions on the parcel.

The land in question sits between State Road and I-95, just north of the creek and south of existing businesses, including a take-out food restaurant and a windows and doors retailer. The parcel is across State Road from the Detention Center prison.

The city’s Redevelopment Authority owns the land, which was not part of Pennypack Park prior to the zoning change. Councilman Bobby Henon sponsored both enabling bills because the parcel is in his district.

Park advocates and anti-billboard activists testified vehemently against the bills during Council’s June 7 Rules Committee hearing, arguing that the billboard would diminish the scenic beauty of the neighboring park and would be an eyesore to the broader landscape. In the lead-up to last week’s full Council vote, Cywinski said, Keystone Outdoor Advertising contacted leaders of the civic group to seek their endorsement for the bills.

At one point, the civic leaders toured the site, which had been paved as a de facto parking lot, in apparent violation of its prior zoning. According to Cywinski, Keystone officials said they wanted to be a “good neighbor.” But the civic leaders were not in position to give an endorsement because the issue had not been discussed or put up to a vote by the full civic association. Cywinski said he asked Council to delay the final vote. But last Thursday’s session was Council’s last before the summer recess, so the vote went ahead as scheduled.

Reached on Friday, Henon maintained that the bills will actually benefit the community. For one thing, the language prohibits the construction of any other buildings on the parcel and prevents subdivision of the parcel, which will stop future encroachment on the actual Pennypack Park.

Further, the billboard (an illuminated digital model with changing displays) will face to the north, away from the park. The advertisements will be directed toward southbound motorists.

There are no homes near the site, Henon said. And Keystone is willing to work out a “benefits agreement” with the civic association. Cywinski said he would like to see Keystone post public service messages on the sign when needed, such as missing persons notices and emergency warnings. The sign could also be used to promote community events, the civic leader said.

Henon said on Friday that despite Council’s approval of the zoning change and the sign itself, the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation must still grant its approval. PennDOT is the official regulator of billboards along federal and state highways. The Federal Highway Administration also has billboard regulations that the agency ties to the funding it provides to states.

In other UHCA business:

• Paul DeFinis, the civic group’s zoning chairman, reported that he has found and begun to review the 80-page zoning file for 8901 Torresdale Ave., the present-day site of Britton Industries. Neighbors have complained about odors and airborne grime emanating from the construction materials recycling business for more than a year. The city’s Air Management Services office has issued the company at least a dozen violations in recent months.

The UHCA is hoping to find records of a neighborhood agreement regarding the zoning. More than a decade ago, neighbors negotiated conditions of operation, such as the installation of a fence and trees to buffer the business from surrounding residences. Britton was not involved in the site at the time, but neighbors believe the company should have inherited the agreement with the use of the land.

• UHCA members are also seeking the enforcement of city zoning laws for an auto body shop at Torresdale Avenue and Ashburner Street. A man who lives next door claims that the business is storing cars and working on them outside without permits. The business doesn’t have an occupancy permit either, the neighbor claimed.

DeFinis reported that the city has cited the business for those violations, but the case remains in litigation. Meanwhile, the shop is still operating.

• Members voted unanimously to endorse a zoning application to legalize a hair salon at 8921–25 Frankford Ave. The building also houses a nail salon and mobile phone store, as well as five apartments.

• Mike Tomlinson of the Tacony-Holmesburg Town Watch said that his organization seeks volunteers to patrol the Upper Holmesburg community. Neighbors are also invited to attend the National Night Out parade on Aug. 2 on Torresdale Avenue from Rhawn Street to Russo Park. The parade will start at 6:30 p.m. and conclude with a vendor fair.

The purpose of National Night Out is to promote partnership between the community and police in the effort to promote safe neighborhoods. ••