we need better regulation of digital signs

CrosstownBillboard . . EMB-NEFJnight

. . above: [R] digital sign at Union St. and Baker Ave.; [L] digital billboard along Rt. 7 between Albany St. and Watt St. 

GazDAG-DigialSigns7Oct2019C6

Thank you, Schenectady Daily Gazette, for publishing the Guest Column “City needs smarter digital sign regulation” (October 7, 2019, C6), by David Giacalone [editor of this website]. We have been discussing this topic for several years, in posts containing commentary, images, and excerpts from expert sources, such as:

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ProctorsMarquee06Mar2015

Proctors Marquee Billboard (with updates)

MarqueeLia14Aug2019

MarqueeBonadio

MarqueeCDPHP14Aug2018Advertising space on the Proctors State Street marquee must be especially coveted this month, with Hamilton: The Musical, opening for a 13-day run on August 14, and crowds of theater-goers and media reps  expected. (see Gazette coverage). Of course, we shouldn’t expect Proctors to take advantage of that demand and display signs for other enterprises, because “Off-premises signs” — signs for businesses not offering services or products on the lot where the sign is located — are specifically prohibited under Schenectady’s zoning ordinance for signage. [§264-62(G)]

When Proctors was granted its Special Use Permit to install 5 digital signs in September 2013, it was specifically reminded that it could not display paid advertising for off-premises businesses. Here’s an excerpt from the Planning Commission Minutes of September 18, 2013, when the SUP was approved:

PCMinutes-ProctorsSUP18Sep2013Public Comments: A member of the public asked if there would be paid advertising on the sign. The applicant responded that while the sign might mention event sponsors, there would be no paid advertising. City staff noted that paid advertising would constitute an off-premise sign, which is not allowed under the city sign ordinance.

  • Off-PremiseSignBanThe screenshot to the right shows the relevant sections of Schenectady’s Signage Code, Prohibited Signs and Definitions. By the way, no new billboards are allowed in Schenectady, unless the requested permit fits a restrictive definition as being “a relocation of two billboards existing prior to the effective date of this chapter.”
  • Note:  You do not have to pay directly for a sign for it to be considered a prohibited off-premise sign. Under our Code the definition of a sign is broad, and means “display of an advertisement, announcement, notice, directional matter or name”, and includes “any announcement, declaration, demonstration, display, illustration or insignia used to advertise or promote the interests of any person or business when the same is placed in view of the general public.” I’m sure the Bonadio Group of CPAs and consultants could explain the relevant issues to Proctors, including treatment of benefits received by a donor to a non-profit and vice-versa.

I was at State and Jay the morning after Hamilton opened for other purposes, but when looking at the Proctors Marquee I could not help but notice that it often had what can only be called ads for off-premise businesses. And, those ads tended to stay on the LCD screen the full 8 seconds required under the City Code for electronic message boards. The collage shows at least seven such off-premise signs that I saw in the brief time I was on the block (click on it for a larger version).

ProctorsOffPremisesAds

In typical Applicant-fashion, Proctors representative told the Planning Commission it would not have such ads, while signaling its likely argument if caught doing so – saying that “the sign might mention event sponsors.” I do recall in other years seeing companies such as the Times Union and MVP mentioned as sponsors. But, the signs now showing at Proctors are not that subtle.

Readers of this space know: (1) I get irked when important local persons and institutions act like scofflaws and the City’s rule-enforcers turn a blind eye to their favorite persons and entities. And, (2) I have long been concerned about the way Proctors went about getting its Special Use Permit for its marquee signs. [See, e.g.,our discussion here] I hope the appropriate people will quickly take action to correct this situation.

When City Hall chose to subject the public to the hazards of digital signs at the busiest block in the City, to please a local favorite institution, I do not think it did so to help the other companies now taking up space on Proctors marquee. If, however, that little bit of “business friendly” governance was intentional, there is still time to correct the situation. Proctors and Philip Morris are local cultural icons, but that should not give them immunity from playing within the rules.

follow-up (Sept. 1, 2019):  A pleasant stroll on the Proctors block yesterday (Saturday, Aug. 31) was interrupted when I saw a Heineken bottle displayed across the Proctors marquee. I took out my little Fuji camera and snapped shots of off-premise ads until the Heineken ad returned. There were 19 such ads over about 15 minutes. Here is a compilation. I have just left a complaint at the City’s Citizen’s Request Tracker, noting the violation of Zoning Code §264-62(G) and providing this collage.

ProctorsBillboardCollage

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ProctorsBillboard2019-09-22follow-up (September 24, 2019): On September 18, 2019, Christine Primiano, the City’s Chief Planning officer, wrote me to say:

It’s our understanding that Proctor’s is in compliance now.”
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Unfortunately, when I drove up State Street a couple hours later, I could see the bold “Bonadio Group” ad playing on the Proctors marquee before I even got to Broadway, and more such ads thereafter. When I let Chris Primiano know they were still showing off-premise ads at Proctors, she seemed genuinely frustrated by the miscommunication with Proctors. On Sunday, September 22, 2019, I strolled downtown and captured 12 off-premise ads, ten different ones and two repeaters, in just under ten minutes snapping photos of the Proctors marquee. [See collage above to the right]
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Because Schenectady City Council member Leesa Perazzo is a longtime employee of Proctors, I had written to her to ask her to intervene, and she passed on my concerns to Philip Morris, the CEO or Proctors, and to their Marketing Director Michael Eck. I wrote Leesa again this week, telling her of the confusion in the Planning Office. Today, Sept. 24, she wrote back that:
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Proctors is working on redesigning these currently. Thank  you.
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My initial and continuing reaction to Ms. Perazzo’s note is that it sounds like Proctors is trying to find/create a loophole in the clear Zoning-Signage Code ban on off-premise signs. This is my email reply to Leesa:
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From: David Giacalone <dgiacalone@nycap.rr.com>
Subject: Re: Proctors Marquee is still a billboard
Date: September 24, 2019 at 4:12:44 PM EDT
To: Leesa Perazzo <LPerazzo@schenectadyny.gov>
Cc: Mary Moore Wallinger <mmwallinger@landartstudiony.com>, Christine Primiano <cprimiano@schenectadyny.gov>

Thanks, Leesa,

I am concerned that we will end up with what is really an off-premise ad —still prominently mentioning a seller of goods or services — that happens to mention the arts or Proctors. That is very different from an image meant to promote a Proctors show with a tiny “sponsored by” acknowledgement in the corner.

I hope that the Planning Office will insist that the intent and spirit of the No Off-Premise Ad Ban must be honored, even by Proctors.

Thanks for following-up on this.

David
questionmarkkeyRedWHY SHOULD WE CARE? Many of my fellow Schenectady residents will surely react to my complaint about the Proctors Billboard by thinking something like: “Proctors is so wonderful, let them do what they want to do. And, leave them alone, David!”
But, there are good reasons for banning off-premise signs, which would sprout up everywhere if allowed. Moreover, I hope we are a City of Laws not Favorites. More than that, I hope folks in the Planning Office and City Hall in general will ponder how, if Proctors can use this ploy, the City could refuse any other not-for-profit entity or governmental authority (i.e., schools, firehouses) that would like to use the “sponsor” ruse to garner “donations” by means of a big digital sign in front of their premises.
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follow-up (October 1, 2019):
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Marquee-Oct1
Planning Commission Chair Mary Moore Wallinger asked me in an email to let her know if Proctors continued to have off-premise ads on October 1st. In 28 minutes taking photos today from across the street, I captured a dozen ads that I deem to be off-premise ads. [See collage above.]
  • There were 8 signs that were purely off-premise ads for the seller of goods or services. 
  • Four proclaimed “Proud Sponsors of Proctors”, but were clearly signs to advertise sponsors not signs advertising a Proctors show or program, which a modest thank-you credit to a sponsor.
One ad, for CATS! seems to me to be an appropriate sign for the Proctors Marquee — promoting an upcoming show, with a small footnote of a credit to American National insurance as a sponsor.
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Cats-AmNat
.. above: sponsor credit done right. . 
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The Mazzone Hospitality ad that I call off-premise flips that relationship, with a tiny nod to Key Hall at Proctors in a corner, and a big spread for the actual subject of the ad. 
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below: large sponsor credit as excuse for an off-premise sign. . 
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MazzoneMarqueeAd

is anyone enforcing our digital sign rules?

 If you have followed this website over the past several years, you know that the Editor believes Schenectady has been far too lenient in allowing frequently-changing digital signs along its roadways. [see, e.g., this 2015 posting] The digital/LCD signs are called Electronic Message Boards [EMB] in the City Zoning Code, and Commercial Electronic Variable Message Signs [CEVMS] by New York State.

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In addition to the Planning Commission’s nearly-automatic granting of Special Use Permits for EMBs, I’ve recently realized that the City’s Zoning and Code Enforcement Offices have been allowing highly visible violations of the relevant Zoning provisions for such Electronic Message Boards. Specifically, there appear to be ongoing violations of Schenectady Zoning Code, § 264-61(I), which states: “[3] In no case shall the message change at a rate greater than once every eight seconds.” This posting demonstrates and explores the lack of enforcement. [For another form of digital sign non-compliance, see our posting “Proctors Marquee Billboard“.]

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. . Query: What’s the advantage for the business shown above in installing the digital sign on the right, over its attractive and effective predecessor on the left, in Schenectady upscale retail district? . . Also, with the bright digital sign placed at the sidewalk and very close to a busy roadway (with heavy vehicular and pedestrian traffic), and located near a complicated set of intersections and parking alternatives and restrictions, in addition to residences, what does the public gain that warrants added traffic hazards, questionable aesthetics, and setting a regulatory precedent that will certainly be exploited by nearby businesses? [see the Google Map depiction of the relevant stretch of Union Street]

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NEFJsignpmNORTHEASTERN FINE JEWELRY. If you drive on upper Union Street, it is quite difficult to miss the digital sign [shown on the right] of Northeastern Fine Jewelry, at 1607 Union Street, on the corner of Baker Ave. The Jewelry shop’s application for a Special Use Permit to install the electronic message board was heard at the September 19, 2018 Planning Commission Meeting. As seen on pp. 3-6 of of the Commission Minutes for that meeting:
  • The Applicant originally asked that the new EMB be allowed to change every 6 seconds, but stated during the Meeting that it would be limited to every 8 seconds, the minimum interval permitted by the NYS DOT and the Schenectady’s Zoning Code. The 8-second interval was explicitly made a restriction on the SUP, and the 6-second request explicitly rejected. [see page 6 of the Minutes]
  • Tom Wheeler of AJ Sign, who presented the Application with his client, Gregg Kelly of NEFJ, also reassured the Commissioners that his “client was not proposing that the sign scroll or flash or have any animation.”
  • NEFJ-GoogleMapThe sign would be very close to residences (and, in fact, was within the 100-foot ban approved by the Commission in a pending proposal to amend the zoning Code). Commissioner Ferro was very reluctant to approve an EMB so close to residences. Nonetheless, rather than rejecting the Application for the same reasons that they have proposed the specific 100-foot ban near residences, the Commissioners added the mild restriction to the SUP that “The sign will remain static between the hours of 9 P.M. and 7 A.M.” The static sign overnight requirement is also a specific requirement in the proposed amendments. [see Minutes, bottom of page 6]
    • Note: A static sign, one that has the same image without changing, is nonetheless a very bright LCD screen. Moreover, in some months, people are in their residence and it is dark out, long before 9 P.M. Keying the Static Time to sunset or full dark would probably be more appropriate.
  • EMB-NEFJ-BIDEnablers. In deciding to approve the Application, certain individual members offered what seem to me to be very weak rationales. For example, Commissioner Bailey, according to the Minutes (see image to the right), “stated that he believes that the applicants are doing their best to incorporate the EMB in the most tasteful, unobtrusive way possible.” Bailey also agreed with Commissioner Beach that approval of the application by the Business Improvement District members is a plus. (Commissioner Ferro noted that BID members could very well want similar signs for their own businesses.) Meanwhile, Commissioner Wilson opined that the particular sign “is the highest quality”, and insisted that “people who live in a mixed use district should expect some commercial activity.”
    • Ed. Note: I’d say that people who live in a mixed use district should expect to be protected by their Planning Commission from inappropriate commercial activity, and businesses should respect the needs of the very residents that help make the district good for businesses.
    • Also, no one suggested that the sign was already quite large and perhaps the LCD screen should be smaller than the current sign area, given its proximity to intersections, the street and sidewalk, and residences.
  • Wallinger-Silhouette-001Planning Commission Chair Mary Moore Wallinger, prior to agreeing to approve the application, made several remarks that would seem to support its denial, give the burden on the Applicant to show the lack of negative impact. For instance, according to the Minutes: (1)  “Commissioner Wallinger stated that she also shares the same concerns [over impact on residences and the neighborhood], which is why she is supporting changes to the Code to address this issue. She added that neighborhoods have different characters, and she does not feel like the Upper Union Street area would be the right fit for a large number of these signs.” (2) “Commissioner Wallinger stated that in general the function of a sign should be to identify the business rather than offer information advertising special offers or products. She noted that the Upper Union Street district has a lot of pedestrian traffic as well, which most likely will not be the ideal audience for a sign of this type and size. ”  (3)  “Commissioner Wallinger stated that while she agrees that in this case the sign would be as tasteful as possible, she is concerned about neighboring businesses whose proposed EMB signs might not be appropriate.”
As seen in this video clip, taken on July 24, 2019, the digital sign at Northeastern Fine Jewelry changes every 6 seconds and has animation.
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  • The Complaint that I filed with the City’s online Citizen Request Tracker on July 9 about the 6-second intervals and use of  movement has not received any substantive reply as of July 28, 2019. update (July 31, 2019): Early Monday morning, July 29, Schenectady Zoning Officer Avi Epstein responded to an email sent by me on July 26 asking him to look into this matter, and said: “We’ll inspect to make sure it meets the required specifications.” Also, on July 30, I received an email from the Complaint Office concerning my complaint saying: “Request reassigned from Codes to Development. Reason: This is a Planning/Zoning concern. Thank you.” I will follow-up here if/as I hear more.

Moreover, on July 25, 2019, I discovered that Northeastern Fine Jewelry’s digital sign is not in compliance with the explicit condition in its Special Use permit to “remain static” after 9 PM for the sake of nearby residences. (I was there at 9:40 pm.) The content of the display is unchanged from the daytime display. Here are two images of the bright and changing NEFJ sign taken when it should have been “static”.

NEFJ-EMBafter9PM

update (Aug. 18, 2019): On August 14, the NEFJ digital sign was still changing at 6 second intervals (or less), and was still fully operational after 9 PM. on August 15 (images below).

IMG_2073 . . IMG_2017

  • checkedboxsupdate (August 21, 2019): Schenectady Zoning Officer Avi Epstein let me know this morning that (emphasis added): “Northeastern Fine Jewelry has been issued a notice of non-compliance as per the city requirements and special use permit. The City is still conducting inspections on many other properties that have electronic message boards, however the images and videos you submit are not admissible as part of our records, as an officer from the City needs to witness the violation in order to issue a citation.”
  • IMG_2100-NEFJ25AugJPG update (August 26, 2019): As of Sunday night, August 25, the NEFJ sign is still not in compliance, with change intervals still at 6 seconds, and the sign is not being held static after 9 PM.
  • follow-up (September 18, 2019): Four weeks after Zoning Office Avi Singer informed me that “Northeastern Fine Jewelry has been issued a notice of non-compliance,” their digital sign is still changing at least every 6 seconds, but there is so much movement on the screen that it is difficult to say just how many changes are actually being made. Recall, as stated above, that Tom Wheeler of AJ Sign, who presented the Application with his client, Gregg Kelly of NEFJ, also reassured the Commissioners that his “client was not proposing that the sign scroll or flash or have any animation.”

IMG_2104-001

UUHarvestFestMast October 12, 2019: Upper Union Harvest Fest 2019 — An otherwise enjoyable photo-stroll by me (documented here) at this year’s Harvest Fest was soured by the realization that Northeastern Fine Jewelry has apparently decided not be a fine neighbor or citizen. Its digital sign remains non-compliant with the City Zoning Code and NEFJ’s Special Use Permit for the sign. This 44-second clip has at least 10 changes, along with sparkles and animation. I have not been near the location after 9 PM to see whether the sign is put into Static Mode for the night out of respect to nearby residences.

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The Blue Ribbon Diner

BlueRibbonEMBThe Blue Ribbon Diner was granted Special Use Permits for signs at the Diner and next-door Bakery, at the Planning Commission’s Meeting of September 20, 2017. On my way home on the evening of July 25, 2019, I happened to pass by the Blue Ribbon complex at 1835 State Street, and marveled that the images on the EMBs seemed to change so rapidly. I parked and took a quick video to document the operation of the Blue Dinner EMBs.

The 28-second clip was taken at about 10:30 PM, and the lighting is not great. Nonetheless, you can see that some of the images change after only 3 seconds, not the 8-second requirement in our zoning code.

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In addition, the changes are blended, and have swipes and dissolves, which add to the distraction,. Such gimmicks are discouraged by best practices guidelines. Notice, also that the Blue Ribbon bakery sign can be seen making its changes in the background. The NYS DOT guidelines on digital signage state that, if signs are visible at the same time to a driver, they must be at least 300 feet apart.

Is the City’s lack of enforcement in the face of highly visible violations malfeasance or “merely” nonfeasance?

follow-up: On the morning of August 14, 2019 (five weeks after my first Complaint to the City), the digital signs at Blue Ribbon Dinner and Blue Ribbon Bakery, had not been adjusted to be in compliance, with dwell time averaging less than 5 seconds. The digital sign at Hair Design by Ralf and the one at Wedekind Auto (photo below), also in Woodlawn along State Street, were also changing significantly more frequently than the 8-second minimal interval required by the Schenectady Zoning Code.

IMG_2031  . .

EMBs granted special use permits in Schenectady, 2017-2019

1903 Maxon Road. – Pat Popolizio – Lighthouse – Feb. 15, 2017

2330 Watt St. – Crosstown Commons – May 17, 2017

Erie Blvd at Harbor Way – Mohawk Harbor – Aug. 16, 2017

1753 State St.  – Ralf Torkel – Jan. 17, 2018 – [hair salon]

416 State Street – Berkshire Hathaway – May 16, 2018

1607 Union St. – Northeastern Fine Jewelry – Sept. 19, 2018

[Ed. Note: For fuller discussion of potential safety hazards from digital signs along our streets, see our March 11, 2015 posting on “Safety Issues raised by electronic message boards“, which starts with a discussion of Proctors’ marquee signs and includes an appendix with general information and relevant links. ]

GazDAG-DigialSigns7Oct2019C6 FYI, see the Schenectady Gazette Guest Column, “City needs smarter digital sign regulation” (October 7, 2019, C6, by the proprietor of this website).

  • An appendix of relevant Zoning provisions, along with [in the near future] Best Practices or Model Rule recommendations, can be found at the foot of this posting.

Continue reading

Safety issues raised by electronic message boards on Proctors marquee and other Schenectady locations

IMG_2017

Upper Union St. at Baker Ave.

red check. . This posting looks at the placement of variable digital LCD displays on the Proctors marquee along State Street in Schenectady, and discusses general safety factors applicable to the placement of such digital signage near urban streets and roads (detailed in our appendix below).  In the years since this posting was first written, many digital signs have been allowed along Schenectady’s streets, with virtually no consideration for their safety implications or visual impact, nor monitoring once erected. The signs are designed and marketed for their ability to attract the attention of drivers more effectively than conventional signs. Shorter intervals between messages increase the ability to distract drivers and pedestrians.

As a Dutchess County planning report recently stated:

“It is difficult to understand how they can be attention-getting for the sign owner and not be a safety hazard or visual intrusion for the community.

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“Municipalities must decide what is more important – the benefit to the digital sign owner, or the safety and visual quality of the community.
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“Through local regulations, municipalities have the power and the right to prohibit or permit digital signs as they see fit.” [Shedding Light on Digital Signs“, in Plan On It, March/April 2019, by Heather LaVarnway and Emily Dozier, Senior Planners for Dutchess County]
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ORIGINAL POSTING

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ProctorsMarquee06Mar2015 A
s this posting is being drafted (March 11, 2015), it’s only been four weeks since the Schenectady City Council passed a resolution allowing Commercial Electronic Variable Message signs (“CEVMS”), also known as electronic message boards, to change every 8 seconds, rather than the 60-second interval that was the minimum allowed between changes under the prior zoning code, §264-61 I(3). Proctors [there has been no apostrophe in its official name since 2007, despite the one on the marquee] has, however, already adopted the significantly shorter interval.  Its electronic marquee signs along State Street near Jay, now have intensely bright, colorful, quickly-changing ads for its upcoming performances that are designed to attract attention, while spotlighting their corporate sponsors.  The marquee appears to have the same message on all three sides most of the time, but occasionally the messages differ.

As discussed at length below, these changes raise important questions about the lawfulness of the CEVMS display (given the lack of review for the speedier image changes at this location) and, more importantly, its potential threat to public safety.

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follow-up (Dec. 19, 2017): Gazette reporter Sara Foss published a column today called “LED displays unsightly, distracting,” about a display at the Albany Times Union Center.

CrosstownLCD update (June 14, 2019): Worrisome digital billboards have been installed at two of our most congested stretches of road, with merging traffic, higher speeds, complex signals, and exits that are frequently backed-up in rush hour. They are along the Crosstown Arterial between Albany and Watt Streets (image at right, click for a larger version), and along I-890, between the Broadway and Scotia/Rt. 5/GE exits, perhaps its most congested segment, in a (frequently ignored) 55 MPH speed zone. For more on digital billboards, see Billboards in the Digital Age: Unsafe and Unsightly at Any Speed.” at the Scenic America website; and Driven to Distraction: The Absurdity of Roadside Digital Billboards“, by Dave Meslin (Huffington Post, July 7, 2014, updated Dec. 6, 2017).

Ed. Note on Legislative INTENT: According to § 264-59 of the City of Schenectady Municipal Code, this is the Intention of Article IX, its Sign Regulation provisions (emphasis added):

redflag-circle§ 264-59 B. Intent. The article is intended to protect property values, create a more attractive economic and business climate, enhance and protect the physical and historic appearance of the community, preserve the scenic and natural beauty, enhance the pedestrian environment, and provide a more enjoyable and pleasing community. The article is further intended hereto to reduce sign or advertising distractions and obstructions that may contribute to traffic accidents, reduce hazards that may be caused by signs overhanging or projecting over public rights-of-way, provide more visual open space and improve the community’s appearance.

. . back to ORIGINAL POSTING . .

 IMG_7577 . . IMG_7583MSpsa

– above: two of the many ads on display on Sunday, March 7 –

The following 19-second video is presented in its unedited form to show a bit of the current marquee experience on the Proctors block. During those 19 seconds, the image on the signs changes four times. Of course, the effect and affect of the Marquee can not be captured by either a still photo or a video clip viewed on a computer screen.

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In addition to its public information role at this site, this webposting was meant to be part of a Complaint to Schenectady’s Development and Code Enforcement Offices.  The current operation of the Proctors marquee raises a few important questions about the lawfulness of the CEVMS display and its potential threat to public safety.  These are my primary concerns/complaints about the Proctors CEVMS display:

  • Did Proctors Need a New Special Use Permit? Was it lawful for Proctors to make this significant change in its marquee’s electronic signage without seeking a Special Use Permit from the City’s Planning Commission and seeking public input?  Schenectady’s Zoning Code, §264-61(I), requires that a special use permit be issued by the Planning Commission before an electronic message board is permitted.  As shown in the image immediately below, in order to protect the public from any substantial neighborhood disruption, or threats to traffic conditions, or to the public health or safety, the owner/applicant of any such sign must show at a public hearing that the proposed sign will have no such negative impact.

SchdyCode-EMB

– Schenectady Municipal Code §264-61 (I) – Electronic message boards. (Click on image to enlarge it)

In addition, the following message (emphasis added) appears* on the City’s webpage for the Department of Development:

Sign Approvals – The City of Schenectady has Sign Regulations for all new or changed signs.  Please verify conformance prior to purchasing any signs by looking in Article 9 of the Zoning Ordinance. [emphasis added]

*followup: Sorry for any confusion, but the above Sign Approvals notice was removed from the Development Office webpage since the changed-sign issue was first raised here, with the City revamping its website, and the word Sign no longer appears there, nor on Planning Commission or the Building Inspector/Code Enforcement Page.

Whatever potential safety hazard the Proctors marquee might have posed when it changed once every minute, its changing every eight seconds surely represents a significant change in the signage, with a substantially greater threat to traffic conditions and public safety that should be fully evaluated by the Planning Commission after a public hearing.  As is outlined more fully below in the discussion of factors affecting the safety of CEVMS displays, the curbside location of the Proctors marquee, at the center of our busiest downtown block, just yards from a traffic signal, makes it the very situation that most calls for review under §264-61(I).

DOTSeeBeSeen Background Note: In September 2013, the NYS Department of Transportation (NYSDOT) announced a program to increase pedestrian safety along the 15-mile Route 5 Corridor, which stretches from State Street in Albany, through Colonie and Niskayuna, where it is called Central Avenue, and then Schenectady’s State Street. In addition to increased enforcement of traffic laws and education, DOT planned a detailed study of pedestrian-related accidents on the Rt. 5 Corridor, focusing on the 8 segments of Rt. 5 with the most pedestrian-vehicle accidents and interactions.

FocusArea1pedsOne Focus Area segment was downtown Schenectady, from Nott Terrace to Washington Avenue, which includes the Proctors Block. A detailed analysis was made of accidents over the 6-year period 2007-2012, with pedestrian-vehicle traffic counts made for the 2-hour AM and PM rush hour peak periods. The resultant 2015 Pedestrian Safety Study, “New York Route 5 Comprehensive Pedestrian Safety Study” (July 1, 2015), showed that the Proctors Block (from Broadway to the Jay St pedestrian crossing to Clinton St.) had the most pedestrian crossings of any Schenectady block (1,222 crossings, Fig. 3.2, above), and experienced a significant percentage of Schenectady’s Rt. 5 pedestrian accidents (see Fig. 3.3). The block has “a signalized mid‐block crossing at Jay Street in the middle of the downtown area adjacent to numerous restaurants, hotels, and Proctor’s Theater”, and mix of parallel and diagonal parking. (see the Study, at 14-22) 

The Study showed pedestrian use of traffic signals far below national averages along all of Rt.5, including the Proctors Block; highlighted the problem of mid-block jaywalking; and indicated that glare and inattentive drivers and pedestrians were problems. (The Study did not cover non-pedestrian vehicle crashes, nor the traffic and pedestrian issues raised when a large show is exiting the Proctors site.)

mayorgarymccarthy2013 When the Study was released, Assembly-member Angelo Santabarbara said, “Venues like Proctors and all businesses on Jay and State streets in Schenectady see a lot of foot-traffic. Implementing programs to keep our families safe in these areas will keep people coming downtown and enjoying all it has to offer.” And, Schenectady Mayor Gary R. McCarthy stated, “Route 5 is one of the City’s most traveled commercial corridors and a vital link between the City of Schenectady and our neighboring communities.  I look forward to working with the Governor’s representatives, the New York State Department of Transportation, and all other involved parties in improving pedestrian and motorist safety alike, thereby enhancing the walkability of this great City.”
See, “Safety improvements coming to Central Avenue” at WGY.com.

Some would argue quite cogently that no interval less than 60 seconds is appropriate at the Proctors site on State Street. However, if a shorter minimum interval between message changes is to be permitted, the factors presented near State and Jay Streets seem to call for intervals significantly longer than every 8 seconds. As noted in the Appendix below, several upstate New York cities have mandated intervals far greater than 8 seconds, and imposed other restrictions to reduce the distraction potential.

HOW DID the 8-SECOND INTERVAL HAPPEN in SCHENECTADY?

red check In 2015, when “the casino wants it” was sufficient basis for major zoning changes, rushed through by Council President Peggy King with no explanatory memorandum or discussion of options and effects, the Planning Staff and Commission recommended the minimum change interval be reduced to 8 seconds from 60 seconds. Our Planners simply stated that the change would make our Code “consistent” with State law. In an apparent rush to please Rivers Casino and Proctors Theatre, Staff never referred to or showed City Council or the public the 3-page NYS Department of Transportation [DOT] policy statement that they were relying upon, nor in any way raised safety or aesthetic issues.

Never mentioned was that the NYS DOT’s 2015 Policy Statement Criteria for Regulating Off-Premises Commercial Electronic Variable Message Signs (CEVMS) in New York State (“DOT CEVMS Statement”),  was focused, as indicated by its title, on off-premise signs along major highways (billboards), not on-premise signs in front of businesses along urban streets. Because variable digital signs increase driver curiosity and “attract increased attention through their brightness and temporal changes of light”, DOT’s experts concluded they require more restrictions than do conventional billboards. Therefore, DOT imposed a set of complementary restrictions, only one of which was the minimum 8-second interval recommended by the Planning Office.

NoEvil-see More specifically, Planning Staff did not mention that the DOT Statement said: (1) “local ordinances will govern if they are more stringent” than every 8 seconds; (2) Transition Time between the messages on the face of the sign must be Instantaneous, to reduce distraction, especially for older drivers; (3) “If more than one CEVMS sign face is visible to the driver at the same time”, the signs must be spaced at least 300’ apart to reduce distraction; and (4) CEVMS must “not appear brighter to drivers than existing static billboards”

Of the four standards mandated by NYS DOT, Schenectady’s ordinance only deals specifically with the interval between messages. This incomplete regulation of on-premise signs along our streets is especially worrisome, because they are so much closer to traffic, pedestrians, and buildings than billboards are from major highways, and the streetscape can offer so many additional distractions and ambient light conditions.

HOW SHOULD CITY HALL TREAT EMB REQUESTS?

The primary procedural question is whether Proctors, or any other owner of an existing electronic sign in Schenectady with variable messages, may lawfully change to the shorter interval without seeking permission from the Planning Commission. To avoid any confusion, the amendment to our electric message board ordinance that was promulgated last month should have explicitly stated that any speed-up of an electronic sign visible from a public roadway or residential zone must receive another special use permit.  It did not, and I do not know whether the oversight was intentional or accidental.  Given the clear purpose and goals of §61(I), the Zoning Officer or the Code Enforcement Office (and the public) should demand prior use of the special use permit process before speeding up an existing digital sign. Does an 8-second interval make sense at a location right at the curb of Schenectady’s busiest pedestrian crossing and main downtown activity hub?

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– above: electronic signs that change every 8 second are shown on the Proctors marquee and on the entry to its Apostrophe Cafe and Lounge –

  • Are Proctors’ Electronic message signs spaced too closely together?  In order to assure public safety, the change to 8-second intervals should have been explicitly accompanied by the related DOT CEVMS spacing requirement, which concerns situations where a driver can see more than one CEVMS sign at the same time:

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    The Spacing rule in the “DOT CEVMS Criteria Statement” says (at page 2, emphasis added):

    Spacing = If more than one CEVMS sign face is visible to the driver at the same time on either side of the highway, the signs must be spaced at least 2500’ apart on controlled access highways, and at least 300’ apart on other types of highways.”

    . . . Any distraction to a driver is inherently problematic, and allowing a motorist to see face changes on two different CEVMS simultaneously, or sequentially, may be even more distracting than a face change on a single sign. As such, signs should be spaced so that a driver is not influenced by more than one CEVMS at a given moment.

    [Note: In case you are wondering, State Street is a “highway”. Under the NYS Code, “highway” is any publicly maintained roadway that is “open to the use of the public for purposes of vehicular travel.” N.Y. VAT. LAW § 118. More specifically, a “public highway” is “Any highway, road, street, avenue, alley, public place, public driveway or any other public way.” N.Y. VAT. LAW § 134]

    IMG_7489

    – heading west on State Street towards Proctors –

    Driving west up State Street, a driver can see the changing displays on both the front and side panels of the Proctors marquee, as he or she heads toward the traffic signal at Jay Street, which is at the south end of a one-block pedestrian mall.  

    Heading east on State Street, a driver can see both the side message board and the front one at the same time, for quite a distance on that busy, confusing block.  He or she can also see the flashing reflection of the marquee display in a window that is on a wall perpendicular to the marquee.  In addition, the driver heading east can see the changing electronic sign above the doorway for Proctors Apostrophé cafe’ and ticket counter, with it crammed lettering. Rather than being 300′ from the marquee, the lounge’s 8-second electronic message board is less than 30 feet away.

        This situation is clearly inconsistent with the NYS DOT spacing requirement for off-premise CEVMS signs, causing added distraction and confusion on what is perhaps the busiest and narrowest part of State Street, at the heart of Schenectady’s downtown district, and with arguably the greatest parking woes and most jaywalking of any block in the City.  Of course, the location of the Proctors’ marquee on the theater’s premises (viz., attached to the building, and thus an on-premise sign) in no way affects its ability to distract drivers and pedestrians, and is clearly relevant to assessing its potential adverse safety effects.

  • Is the CEVMS display on Proctors marquee too bright?  The marquee lights at Proctors seem much too bright.  NYSDOT’s CEVMS criteria Statement sets a maximum for night-time brightness, saying it should not appear brighter than in daytime:

Maximum Brightness = 5,000 cd/m2 (daytime), 280 cd/m2 (nighttime)

It also says, in more practical terms:

The brightness of CEVMS is not only potentially distracting due to its ability to attract increased attention, but may also create problems with dark adaptation among older drivers. In order to minimize these dangers, the brightness of this technology should be constrained such that CEVMS do not appear brighter to drivers than existing static billboards.

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Members of the public rarely have the ability to measure illumination readily at hand. We end up just “eyeballing” the display, and perhaps looking for our sunglasses.  But, the City’s code enforcement office certainly has the capability to measure illumination. Both of the shorthand criteria mentioned in the DOT Statement — not appearing brighter than in daytime and not appearing brighter to drivers than existing static billboards seem problematic enough to warrant the short trip from City Hall to Proctors to evaluate the situation from the DOT CEVMS perspective, as well as under the City’s Code.

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The following slideshow gives a glimpse at the things theater-goers do when exiting Proctors. All daytime photos were taken over a 17-minute span on a cold and windy afternoon, when the Sunday matinee of “Annie” was letting out, March 8,  2015.

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Drivers passing by Proctors or trying to pick up theater goers when Annie was letting out needed to be mindful of the pedestrians and their rides, the traffic signal at Jay Street, and vehicles leaving parking spaces, rather than being distracted by a quickly-changing, bright and colorful sign with information that is (1) difficult to fully comprehend, because of font size, brightness, short duration, etc.; (2) not immediately needed by patrons for getting to Proctors or finding parking; and (3) easy to attain from many other sources.  Were it dark, with precipitation or ice making the road and sidewalks slippery, or perhaps winds and frigid temperatures pressuring parents and older theater-goers to find shelter as soon as possible, even more attention on the demands of driving would be needed, whether driving through, picking up passengers, or safely exiting parking spaces.

 Is the risk to public safety worth taking so that Proctors can show-off with a little more pizzazz? [Or, attract more corporate donations from potential advertisers?] Does Proctors need bright, quickly-changing messages to distinguish it from any other business or institution in downtown Schenectady?  Do Mssrs. Philip Morris and Ray Gillen contend that the flashing marquee is not there to attract the attention of passers-by? Isn’t the situation at Proctors precisely what the drafters had in mind when the protection of a special use permit and required findings on the impact on traffic, health and safety were placed in Schenectady’s ordinance regulating the use of commercial electronic message signs?

Strichman-email-20Mar2015

– email reply of Zoning Office to the above Complaint –

update (April 22, 2015): On March 20, 2015, Steve Strichman, Schenectady’s Chief Zoning Officer, replied to the above Complaint with an email (click on image above this update) that made it clear there would be no action to require Proctors nor, apparently, any other current holder of an electronic sign permit in Schenectady, to re-apply for a Special Use Permit in order to demonstrate that the higher speed will not have a significant negative impact on the listed Special Use Permit factors. Mr. Strichman wrote:

Mr. Giacalone

It is not my intention to revisit all of the electronic message boards that have received Special Use Permits over the past 15 years.

The special use permits were issued with the ability to change messages at rates set by the City Council.  That continues to be the case even though the time period has changed.

As for items 2 and 3 below in your email, those are D.O.T. regulations over which the city of Schenectady has no enforcement authority.

Thank you for your concern on this issue.

Steve Strichman

My email that day in response to Mr. Strichman asked a number of questions, including:

Is it your position that increasing the rate of change on an electronic message board from a 60-second interval to an 8-second interval is not significant enough an alteration to warrant another review?
– Is it your position that the showing needed to get a permit for changes at once per minute is adequate to satisfy the traffic and safety issues that would need to be demonstrated for a permit to change a sign every 8 seconds, at one of the most sensitive locations in the City for signs that basically abut the road?

In addition, I gave this reply to Strichman’s dismissal of the NYDOT criteria for CEVMS:

Of course, I don’t expect Schenectady to enforce the DOT regulations, but as you surely know (1) they are a good standard [promulgated after study and consideration by experts] regarding safety and traffic issues that are relevant to the showing required under  §264-61 (I)(2), and (2) the City Council and Planning Commission both said the change to 8 seconds was done to be consistent with the DOT Standards.  Why would you ignore the DOT standards meant to safeguard the public that were meant to complement the 8-second interval?

FOILED. No response was made by the Schenectady Zoning Office, or any other of the copied officials, to my March 20, 2015 reply.  That same day, I submitted a FOIL request for all documents relating to application(s) by Proctors to operate variable electronic sign displays. The FOIL office responded by sending me only one document, the Decision Letter, dated Sept. 27, 2013. It does not mention interval speed. Moreover, the 09/18/2013 Minutes of the Planning Commission (see pp. 3-4) meeting, at which the SUP was approved, makes no mention of the minimum change interval for the electronic display.  When the FOIL office suggested I needed to file another FOIL request for the additional documents relating to the application of Proctors for the September 2013 special use permit, I complied rather than complaining that they should have included those documents, filing again on April 15, 2015, and am waiting to see if Proctors submitted the SUP Application Form that is required by the Planning Office.

red check follow-up: I have received the SUP Application of Proctors, signed by Philip Morris, and dated Sept. 2, 2013 (two months after NYSDOT and Mayor McCarthy announced the comprehensive Rt. 5 pedestrian safety campaign described above). It is understandable that the City Planners would not want the public to see what constituted Proctor’s evidence that there would be no substantial or undue adverse effects from its new variable-message digital marquee (and the full array of 5 electronic message boards, at the front and rear of Proctors, which were approved at once by the Commission).  The rather nontechnical “explanations”, from page 2 of the 3-page application, were:

MarqueeSUP02Sep2013

Thus, no supplemental application for a Special Use Permit was required before Proctors put up the much faster variable message board, because it already had a special use permit for its much-slower digital sign. As expected, however, the Planning Office had approved the first digital marquee based on one sentence, with no facts or studies, or expert opinions, but instead the Applicant simply denying there would be any adverse impact on public health or safety, in two very different Proctors locations (the front being one of the busiest and most complex blocks in the City for vehicles and pedestrians, with EMBs on three sides of a marquee and a nearby entrance, and the back being a parking and drop-off roadway).

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. . above: digital screen installed at rear of Proctors, at Stratton Plaza . .

– posting continued –

 IMG_7539-001 . . . IMG_7527  .

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*.+ – click this thumbnail to see the collage “Exiting Annie” –

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Should we be concerned about short-interval CEVMS at Proctors and other Schenectady locations?  Below is a discussion of  factors to consider.

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