City Mall Pall

All ads, all the time

Whoever wins the city's highly prized, new street furniture franchise, New York can expect an even wider proliferation of the everywhere-you-look ads that many Gothamites already consider a growing plague.

Three big firms—Van Wagner, the Spanish conglomerate Cemusa, and a French firm, JC Decaux (teamed with NBC Universal)—are the finalists in a race to win the $1 billion contract to handle some 3,300 bus shelters, 330 newsstands, and 20 public toilets. Driving the deal is the hugely profitable revenue from the ads with which the winner will bedeck all the fixtures. Estimates are the contract will yield more than $1 billion, with the city's cut being some $100 million.

But it comes at a civic cost, say critics.

"It's like a runaway infection: New York is now covered in billboards," said Steve Stollman, a former newsstand owner who has long advocated on behalf of street-level news dealers. Stollman should know. His East Houston Street office, which doubles as headquarters for the bicycle group Times Up!, is located at what's become a downtown crossroads of commercialism. Immense billboards loom over Houston Street between Broadway and Lafayette. The newly constructed glass-and-steel building housing Adidas boasts a built-in four-story billboard.

The new street furniture contract will only add to that glut, said Stollman. "The franchise basically calls for a billboard dressed up like a newsstand," he said. Each of the contenders has tried to outdo the other by hiring big name architects—including Charles Gwathmey and Richard Meier—to design the bus shelters, but Stollman describes the designs as "pretty minimal functionality. There is a kind of mall pall, a horrible gray uniformity."

 
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