Danger Signs

A sneaky piece of legislation is turning a normal New York street corner into another Times Square.

Welcome to the Hotel Pennsylvania. The McKim, Mead & White building has suffered indignities before, but the pair of 30-foot-wide Bud Light billboards flanking its Ionic colonnade could be one of the worst.

The beer ads are among more than a dozen new billboards on Manhattan’s Seventh Avenue between 31st and 34th Streets—the result of a zoning change approved in October 2001, when most New Yorkers obviously had other things on their minds. The applicant? Vornado Realty Trust, which owns the Hotel Pennsylvania and most of the other buildings on the strip. According to its Web site, the firm—with revenues of $1.4 billion in 2002—“has been embarked on an aggressive expansion strategy.”

That plan included pushing for the zoning amendment in the waning days of the Giuliani administration. Once it was passed (over the “no” vote of current City Planning Commission chair Amanda Burden), Vornado began erecting five-story-high advertising towers on both sides of Seventh Avenue. One behemoth, on the H&M store at the southeast corner of 34th and Seventh, recently advertised a Viagra competitor called Levitra.

Before 2001, businesses in the area were allowed to advertise only themselves. Under Vornado’s plan, every facade in the district is for rent. Vornado claimed the billboards would give the area a “coherent visual identity” and “define the district as a regional gateway to the city.” It promised, in exchange for the right to erect ads as tall as 120 feet, to install way-finding signs around what is now known as the Penn Center Subdistrict. According to Vornado, those signs “would improve pedestrian circulation and encourage commuters and visitors to remain in the district longer.”

Community Board #5 opposed the zoning change, telling the Planning Commission the “signs proposed by the applicant are too big and too high and unrelated to the scale of the surrounding buildings.” Two years later the community board’s chair, Kyle Merker, says, “The cost to the neighborhood outweighed any benefit.” And if the way-finding signs are there, he hasn’t noticed.

What Merker has noticed is that the jumble of advertising has transformed this section of Seventh Avenue into a new Times Square—without the square that makes it possible to step back from the signage. Signs identifying local businesses like Spinelli’s Pizzeria are dwarfed by ads for companies that have no connection to the neighborhood. Even Macy’s (which supported Vornado’s application) has gotten in on the act; the two Jumbotron screens on its southwest corner, which previously advertised only Macy’s wares, are now available to any taker. Calls to three Vornado offices were not returned; an outside PR representative said, “The Penn Center Subdistrict is not something they’re willing to comment on.”

What makes Manhattan succeed as a place to live and work is that pedestrians are rewarded with human-scale sights—everything from newspaper headlines to restaurant menus to babies in strollers. Billboards, meant to be seen from moving cars, are too large to be absorbed into that mix. As reimagined by Vornado, emerging from Penn Station and walking up Seventh Avenue is a disturbing, antihuman experience—creating a feeling of impotence among the billboards that Levitra won’t cure.

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