. . 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:
upper Union St. at Baker Ave.
“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.
“Municipalities must decide what is more important – the benefit to the digital sign owner, or the safety and visual quality of the community.
“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]
As 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.
– share this posting with the short URL: http://tinyurl.com/ProctorsCEVMS –
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.
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):
§ 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 . .
– 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.
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.
– 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).
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.
One 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 a 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.)
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?
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.
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?
– 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:
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]
– 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.
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.
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.
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?
– 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:
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.
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.
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:
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).
. . above: digital screen installed at rear of Proctors, at Stratton Plaza . .
– posting continued –
. . . .
– click this thumbnail to see the collage “Exiting Annie” –
Should we be concerned about short-interval CEVMS at Proctors and other Schenectady locations? Below is a discussion of factors to consider.