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Businesses Love Digital Billboards, Neighbors Want to Get the LED Out

By  Alisa Hauser and Paul Biasco | March 5, 2013 12:31pm | Updated on March 5, 2013 2:55pm

LINCOLN PARK — Opportunity knocks — and flashes.

Where some businesses see an increase in digital signs popping up in neighborhoods as an economic boost, some residents say the brightly lit advertisements are a nuisance.

Hot on the heels of a 20-year, $180 million digital billboard deal forged by the city in December with one large vendor, a flurry of smaller vendors are cutting their own deals to put ads on privately owned land on commercial streets in Lincoln Park, Lakeview, Bucktown, Wicker Park and West Town.

For instance, Paul Sajovec, chief of staff for Ald. Scott Waguespack (32nd), said his office has fielded complaints about a newly installed billboard at Janssen and Fullerton avenues in Lincoln Park, between Southport and Greenview avenues.

"They hate them, say they're ugly, that they devalue their property and cheapen it,” said Sajovec.

The ads also make local shopping areas look like “part of a touristy strip as opposed to a neighborhood one," said Sajovec.

The City Hall deal with Interstate Outdoor Advertising and JCDecaux focused on placing 34 billboards and 60 LED display panels along the Kennedy Expy. to help fund city services. The growth in neighborhood digital signs is unrelated to that deal, said a spokesman for Mayor Rahm Emanuel.

Steve Jensen, president of the Bucktown Community Organization, said that while digital signs “might be great for out by the highway on industrial stretches, or the airport where nobody lives, they're not great for neighborhoods.”

According to Jensen, the sign companies are "looking for little slivers of land and, of course, property owners are going to bite in these hard economic times. But meanwhile the neighborhood suffers."

In early February, GreenSigns Chicago installed a new stand-alone LED billboard on the southwest corner of Milwaukee Avenue and Leavitt Street, just south of the Bloomingdale Trail in Bucktown.

Joe Mancino, owner of GreenSigns Chicago, said that the decision to install the sign on privately owned land was sparked by available space and declining operating costs of digital screens.

"The prices have come down, like with TVs,"  Mancino said.

GreenSigns Chicago is working on obtaining new ads for its 18 billboards in Chicago — nine of which are digital.

While zoning code does not permit digital boards within 100 feet of residential zoned properties or in historic landmark districts, it does allow for signs on commercially zoned buildings, many of which have apartments above retail storefronts, Sajovec said.

Residents who live above storefronts have complained that when the signs change from one image to another, “the intensity of light goes up or down" inside the residences, Sajovec said.

Complicating matters, "The way the code is written is that there are many locations when you don't need any special or additional approval [to put in a digital sign], and vague language in signage permits can say something benign in the description like ‘change of sign face,’” Sajovec said.

Some business owners see the digital signs as a positive addition to the streetscape.

"I like it," said Giovanni Scalzo, owner of Via Carducci, 1419 W. Fullerton Ave. —  a restaurant located kitty-corner from the same Lincoln Park billboard that's drawing complaints.

“I think they are pretty nice. They aren't huge. Fullerton is a dead street. We need more walking traffic," he said.

The Lincoln Park sign across from Scalzo's business is owned by Total Outdoor, which installed 10 new digital signs in Chicago neighborhoods in the last week, including a sign along a building at 1835 W. North Ave. in Wicker Park that went up Thursday.

Debbie Sharpe, who has owned the building at the southwest corner of Honore Street and North Avenue in Wicker Park since 1993, said her decision to sign a 10-year lease was over a year in the making.

Of digital signs, Sharpe said she personally "thinks they're ugly" but added that she's been turning down offers from vendors for 15 years who want to put signs up. 

"Obviously there is a demand for them, " she said.

Sharpe declined to disclose how much rent she is being paid by Total Outdoor, though she likened the agreement to "renting out another apartment that you don't have."

When told that neighbors and community groups have complained about the boards, Sharpe responded, "I am sorry. I don't know what else to say except if they'd like to pay for me to not have the sign, that would be OK."

Waguespack was one of three alderman who voted against the digital billboard deal with Interstate Outdoor Advertising and JCDecaux.