UPTOWN — A large billboard would be headed for the historic heart of Uptown if the City Council on Wednesday approves a zoning change proposed by Ald. James Cappleman (46th).
A billboard would help the owner of the vacant Borders building (which used to be Goldblatt's) with revenue as he seeks tenants that mesh with the entertainment district, officials said. But critics in the community fear harm to the neighborhood aesthetic and a subsequent flood of massive billboards.
Cappleman's proposal would allow for billboards on portions of Lawrence and Racine avenues and Broadway, where the zoning does not currently allow them, officials said.
The measure would help the owner of the terra-cotta-coated former Borders building at 4718 N. Broadway, Josh Mintzer, install a 14-by-48-foot lighted billboard above the building, on the northern face of an adjacent building he also owns.
Mintzer said his efforts to find tenants haven't "gotten the traction we would have hoped for," from the types of restaurants, bars and other businesses that local leaders say would bolster plans to make Uptown a booming entertainment district.
"By having additional revenue, it allows me to be patient and wait it, out as opposed to just signing a lease with anyone to get some cash coming into the property, which is what I was inclined to do," Mintzer said.
His properties in Uptown occupy an area known as Uptown Square, near Lawrence Avenue and Broadway. The historic district includes the Uptown Theatre, Riviera and Aragon Ballroom.
Alyssa Berman-Cutler, president and CEO of Uptown United and a 46th Ward Zoning and Development Committee rep, said that her organization supports the billboard and is open to other buildings in Uptown Square getting large ads.
“In terms of style and the look of this part of the area, we’ve always felt signage and advertising has a role in the heart of an entertainment district, like Times Square,” Berman-Cutler said.
She said the "historic integrity" of the buildings would be protected.
Much of the community didn't find out about the billboards until an August meeting of the 46th Ward Zoning and Development Committee. Cappleman's office indicated at the meeting that the Uptown Broadway Building, across the street from Borders, also was considering a billboard.
But Cappleman's chief of staff, Tressa Feher, said Monday that now only the Borders building is seeking a billboard.
Vocal Cappleman critic Jeffrey Littleton posted Monday morning on the Magnolia-Malden Block Club Facebook page: "Picture a huge lighted billboard where it says Borders."
"Now," he continued, "picture an ad for Four LOKO booze ... or AXE body spray. How is that promoting 'entertainment district'?"
Cappleman defended the billboard in a discussion with constituents on the Beacon Block Club's Facebook page. He argued it would "generate income so that the rent for the retail space," in the Borders building "could be lowered to attract a business that would compliment the Entertainment District."
"This will not only liven up the retail in this area, but it will spur more interest in getting the Uptown Theatre restored," Cappleman said.
He said "Talks are now underway to get some exciting retail," in Mintzer's building that "wouldn't have occurred without this billboard in place."
Uptown resident Martin Tangora, the 46th Ward zoning committee's historic structures expert, complained in the discussion that the committee was not allowed to debate the billboards beforehand. He opposes billboards in the historic district.
Uptown resident Loretta Rode, a finance manager, said in an interview that she saw a public notice about Cappleman's proposal earlier this summer and asked the alderman why he wanted to change the zoning in the area.
She said Cappleman never mentioned a billboard.
He told her the request for a zoning change was a temporary measure to allow more curb cuts for loading zones to make the area around Lawrence Avenue and Broadway better suited to businesses more conducive to entertainment, Rode said.
Rode alleged the community has been “blatantly lied to,” by Cappleman’s office.
Cappleman responded to her criticism in the online debate, saying, "At the time we discussed this, curb cuts was the major issue.
"That later evolved when we heard from the building owner about his extreme difficulties with getting a quality retailer in this space," Cappleman said.
But Cappleman said that "No one from the community showed up to testify," when a City Council committee voted in favor of his plan last week.