By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
Money being the lifeblood of politics, one of the top tycoons in the outdoor-advertising business did his part this summer, collecting almost $70,000 for a favored politician.
The donations to Melinda Katz, the City Council member from Queens who is running for comptroller, came in 14 separate checks of $4,950 each, the maximum allowed for citywide elections. Richard Schaps, the crusty 59-year-old chief executive officer of Van Wagner Outdoor Advertising, wrote one check himself. A baker's dozen of family members and friends wrote the rest, all on the same day. Schaps delivered them at a fundraiser for Katz. He said he didn't recall exactly where the event was held. "It was upstairs," he said. "There were hundreds of people."
Last month, Katz, who heads the council's powerful land-use committee, did some writing of her own, penning a new piece of legislation that has long been on the wish list of Schaps and his advertising colleagues. Katz's Intro 623 would allow advertisers for the first time to legally plant their messages, conveyed on glossy multi-colored vinyl wraps, atop the thousands of wooden sidewalk sheds that line the streets where building-façade work is allegedly being conducted.
The "allegedly" is required here since many sheds remain in place for no better reason than that they have served as lucrative advertising billboards. Looming over the sidewalk, the sheds' parapet walls are perfect for presenting eye-grabbing images of huge green bottles of Heineken, or the carefree joys of iPod usage. These are great visuals for those who have long yearned to live in Blade Runner country. For the rest of us, they have all the charm of auto exhaust. At any rate, they're illegal. City rules allow only small signs signaling the shops obscured beneath the scaffolding. This made no difference whatsoever to advertisers and building owners, who flagrantly violated the law for yearswith apparent impunity.
Like all crimes worth committing, there's a good incentive: Industry figures say that these shrink-wrapped productions generate rental revenues of up to $50,000 per month. That's a lot of Heinekens. The profitable crime wave came to an end only when some spoilsport citizens' groups complained last year, prompting the city's Department of Buildings to finally threaten to enforce the law. In an expression of official tolerance that ordinary law-breakers can only envy, the department didn't actually fine any of the culprits. It merely issued warning letters.
In another gesture of infinite patience and understanding, the citysaying it needed a firm with experienceawarded Schap's company a $100,000 contract to remove any illegal ads, even his own.
The signs came down.
As Schaps explained in a telephone interview last week, this newfound cooperation emerged from enlightened self-interest. "We said, 'Look, we want to cooperate. We'll take them down.' The hope was the city would say, 'Gee, you know what? Let's think about this.' " Faced with a choice between blank plywood walls or classy vinyl wraps, Schaps said he figured the city might prefer his ads, provided there were permits and fees.
Hadn't he known the ads were illegal in the first place? "Absolutely," he responded. So why had his company put them up? "What was the question again?" he asked. It was repeated. Schaps paused. "No comment," he said.
The advertising titan was also circumspect about his discussions with council member Katz. Had he discussed the measure with her? "Not necessarily," he hedged.
Asked what that meant, Schaps grew annoyed.
"It means not necessarily," he shouted. "I did not necessarily talk to her about that."
Well, maybe the subject had come up, he acknowledged a few minutes later.
"I have had two or three meetings with Melinda about outdoor-advertising matters," he now recalled. "They covered a wide range of thingsprobably the least important was the sidewalk sheds. If I mentioned it, it may've come up in conversation. But I didn't speak specifically about sidewalk sheds."
Having cleared that up, Schaps allowed that he was pleased with what he saw in the new bill. "I'd like it to happen," he said.
Katz, 42, is a sunny personality popular with her fellow council members. Although the race for comptroller is already a crowded field, with four other likely candidates, Katz is considered a front-runner, thanks in part to her campaign-fundraising prowess.
Asked about her new bill, Katz had no problem recalling that she'd consulted Schaps and other industry members on it. "I've spoken to him about this. I've spoken to a bunch of folks on this," she said. She'd gotten to know Schaps while working on related legislation regarding illegal billboards, where she said he'd been helpful. "I know Richard well," Katz said.
She said she had no idea, however, how much the advertising man had contributed to her campaign. "A lot of people gave me a lot of money over the past year. I am certainly appreciative of that," Katz said. "But that certainly doesn't dictate what's right or wrong in legislation."
Actually, Schaps is Katz's largest contributor thus far, having given twice as much as her next-biggest donor.
"I didn't know that," the council member said. "Thanks for telling me. I have been extremely fortunate."
Katz said she had started discussing possible legislation on the sidewalk sheds over a year ago. "There was no enforcement," she said. "It was getting out of hand." She said she was glad to see the buildings department finally take action earlier this year. "But that costs a lot of money. It ends up being almost a full-time job," she said. Since the advertising companies were throwing up their posters anyway, she suggested, "this could be a good source of revenue for the city." Her bill would curb the worst excesses by limiting the ads to commercial districts, she said.
Just how expensive is that enforcement? "That's a good question," she said. "How much did it cost specifically? I don't know. I do know it is a lot of resources."
So, no cost analysis. What revenues might the new permit fees yield? That calculation has yet to be made as well. "I don't have an expectation. I apologize," she said. "The onus is on the buildings department to find the best way to enforce it."
Katz also never got around to discussing the matter with the organizations that originally pressured the city to do something. Last year, the Municipal Arts Society documented violations and then demanded that the city end the illegal free ride the advertisers were getting.
Had she met with that group? "No, we didn't," said Katz. She added, agreeably: "We should. That's a good idea, actually."
Vanessa Gruen, the watchdog who spearheaded the society's efforts, said she was stunned when she heard about the new legislation.
"After a lot of pushing by ourselves and others, the city started cracking down," said Gruen. "Thenwhammowhat does Melinda Katz do? She introduces this bill to the City Council to make them legal. These are public sidewalks. We're the ones who have to live with this. I think we ought to be consulted."
Katz said she's now eager for feedback. "I'm very curious to hear how the public feels about it," she said. Whatever she hears, it won't be any rougher than what the crowd at Shea Stadium doled out a week ago Sunday. An amateur singer, Katz sang "God Bless America" during the seventh-inning stretch of the Mets' disastrous final game. The Mets were down 8-1 when she took the mic behind home plate. If she didn't exactly cheer up the house, no one thought she did any worse than pitcher Tom Glavine that day.