Signs of the Times

Huge Billboards Invade Noho and Soho

The battle over Times Square is being fought again. Only this time, it's being waged about four miles south of 42nd Street. In Noho and Soho, residents say they are being overrun with megabillboards and advertising signs that are turning their neighborhood into one huge, glittering, gawdy commercial.

"They're making this space into Times Square," says artist and businessperson Marc Balet, who lives and works in a loft at Broadway and Houston, where a new double-sided, 2100-square-foot billboard sits, tabula rasa, awaiting an ad; the possibility of another 6000-square-foot poster along his building looms. "I don't think anyone cares much if my windows are blocked, but there's a bigger question of turning this into an impenetrable alley of advertising."

Community Board 2 chair Alan Gerson conjures up an equally frightening image: "Pretty soon, we'll all be staring at monster-sized Chiquita bananas, Snoopys, and Cap'n Crunches," he says, a scene that sounds more like living in the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade than in any neighborhood.

West Houston is lined with ads that leave onlookers feeling like they're paging through Elle.
Hiroyuki Ito
West Houston is lined with ads that leave onlookers feeling like they're paging through Elle.

Community complaints in Noho and Soho are growing as advertising for everything from Smirnoff vodka to Solgar vitamins to Fila gear and Internet search engines proliferates in murals, vinyl banners, and illuminated billboards. Most are popping up along Houston from Lafayette Street to Sixth Avenue, and around the Holland Tunnel.

The barrage is yet another symptom of the success that killed Soho. Longtime residents who say they pioneered the now ultrahip neighborhood lament that its popularity has turned it from artists' colony to a commercial highway.

In Noho, residents met last week about the ads, galvanized in part by the newly erected, still-blank 2100-square-foot billboard above a Houston Street car wash. The corner, near Broadway, is famous for its ads, including Donna Karan's photo-quality image of New York City and Fila's mural featuring a 3-D mountain climber ascending a peak. The new billboard, put up by Go Outdoor Media, has two flanks erected on a tripod scaffold, effectively wedging four windows of a loft co-op in between.

Worse still, says Balet, who lives in the building, Go has permits to erect another billboard as large as 6000 square feet on the gas station property; such a structure would darken windows along his building's entire southern wall. The windows are "lot line," meaning they were not part of the building originally, and owners have no legal right to the light and air they provide.

James Giddings, a partner in Go Outdoor Media, says the smaller sign "is above a car wash with a 24-hour gas station and a 24-hour blinking sign. We thought it would be an appropriate place." As for the second, giant billboard, which Giddings says could range from 4000 to 6000 square feet, "nothing is decided." But the prospect leaves Balet—who, ironically, runs his own ad agency—feeling worried and bullied, because, he says, Go Outdoor Media is negotiating with his co-op in no-win terms: Co-op owners can avoid a light-blocking billboard on the gas station lot so long as they allow Go to hang a mesh ad covering the entire side of their building. Usually, such deals compensate co-ops with ad revenue and accommodate tenants by cutting the mesh where it covers a window. Balet says, so far, Giddings has been unwilling to pay or cut windows.

"It's like, if we don't take his offer, he'll put up the other billboard, which is arguably worse," say Balet. Giddings says no plans are finalized, adding, "I don't like the term bullied because it's really not appropriate. We're trying to be good neighbors."

Giddings warns that co-op dwellers face a possibly worse outcome: The owners of the gas station could put up a four- or five-story building. "What seems like blocked light and air because of a sign might be a lot better than cinderblock walls," says Giddings. "It's like the lesser of two evils, but no one's going to appreciate that fact because I'm the one that showed up first."

Giddings says Go Outdoor Media recently signed a 20-year lease for both the smaller billboard and the larger, unbuilt one. The smaller sign, which has indirect lighting, is being brokered through an agency, but Giddings said no client has bought space yet. "We'll sell it to whatever legal advertising wants to pay for it," he says.

City Councilwoman Kathryn Freed, who represents Soho and parts of Noho, says the signs raise several zoning questions. Signs are restricted within a certain proximity of residential districts and buildings. In fact, one of the reasons Soho and Noho are being barraged is because they remain manufacturing districts, where signs are more easily installed. And while Soho has some protection by being designated a historic district, Noho does not.

"I empathize with the residents and understand that this is not a welcome change," says Giddings. "But this city is always changing; it's kind of chaotic, and there are zoning regulations that allow you to do certain things in certain places. I guess the artists and manufacturing zones went well together for a while, but now it seems like they'd rather not be manufacturing."

Sean Sullivan, director of the Soho Alliance, is considering litigation regarding signage. He and others say the city's Department of Buildings wrongly issues advertising permits; DOB could not be reached for comment. Freed says her staff is investigating zoning laws that prohibit signage near parks, since there are several in the area. In fact, her staff is checking into whether the sparsely planted traffic barriers along Houston—formally considered parkland—qualify.

"I don't ever see any forest rangers in there," quips Balet, who looks from one of his two rooftop gardens to an array of ads along Houston. Mixed among a skyline view that includes the World Trade Center, the Woolworth Building, and glimpses of both the Williamsburgh and Manhattan bridges are ads for gin, health pills, and gym shoes. "I love advertising," says Balet, who has made part of his living from advertising. "I'd love to paint on the wall," he says, noting that he once tried to get the site of the current DKNY ad for his then-client "Mr. Armani."

But there's a limit, he says: "People have gone mad to put their name on the wall, and I know I'm part of the problem. I just don't want it to rule the environment." As he spoke, the Izod blimp lazily passed by.

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