The Illegal Billboards That Won’t Go Away

Nobody hates to see empty storefronts in Georgetown more than GM. They represent the loss of an establishment and the longer they stay empty, the more they depress the appearance of the block.

But are they worse than billboards?

You may have noticed recently that two storefronts on the 3300 block of M St. have been covered in billboards. The one above covers 3338 and 3340 M St. It is a giant advertisement for Mastercard. On the right is a big screen TV that shows a feed from a camera pointed out at the street. Animated shoes react to movement on the sidewalk.

Across the street at 3335 M St. is this:

It’s a billboard for PNC. It also has a big screen TV, but this one allows you to play a boxing-based game to teach you the power of savings.

While an empty storefront is undesirable, these billboards are eyesores. And frankly they cheapen the look of the neighborhood. Moreover, even if you are ok with these particular ads, do you really want every landlord with an empty store to turn their facade over to Madison Ave.?

There ought to be a law against this. Thankfully there is. No sign like this can be erected, even temporarily without seeking the proper permit. According to the District Office of Planning, the landlord would need approval from the Office of Planning’s Historical Preservation Review Board, the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs, and the Old Georgetown Board. (According the staff of the Old Georgetown Board, the law is a bit gray as to whether they need to approve it. Generally they follow a rule that if it is there for fewer than 30 days, they don’t need to approve it. Either way, the Office of Planning and DCRA must approve it.)

Does this all sound familiar? It should, because these properties have been used as billboards on-and-off for at least eight months now. Back in January, GM wrote about the Land Shark Lager billboard at 3335 M St.:

In between the Landshark Lager billboard and the current billboards, there was at least one more billboard for a Droid phone.

And no, no permit has ever been sought or obtained to allow for any of these billboards.

So who owns these vacant buildings? Eastbanc. GM reached out to Eastbanc this week to determine whether they understood that a permit was necessary.  A representative responded on Tuesday that yes permits are necessary and that the billboards were coming down. (As of last night they were still up and the TVs were even still on).

Of course, Eastbanc ought to know that a permit was required because they were notified of the deficiency last January in response to the Landshark billboard. In fact, according to the Office of Planning they were fined by the city over it.

Notheless, the representative of Eastbanc stated that it was not Eastbanc that was violating the law, but rather the advertising company that hired a local architect to prepare the drawings and obtain permission. According to the Eastbanc representative, the ad company “jumped the gun” and installed the ads without Eastbanc’s permission. Eastbanc stated that they were surprised when the ads went up and stated that the contracts have been terminated.

GM will leave it to his readers to decide who is really at fault. The advertiser who “jumped the gun” or the landlord who has already seen at least two illegal billboards go up before being “surprised” at yet two more.

Whether you agree that these billboards should be banished or not, Georgetown’s historical character is absolutely dependent on rigorous enforcement of the review process. At the west end of M St., these requirements are being brazenly flouted. Whether the culprit is an overeager ad company or the landlord, only one of those entities can stop it once and for all.

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13 Comments

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13 responses to “The Illegal Billboards That Won’t Go Away

  1. They both should be fined…….heavily.

    Thank you for bringing this out into the open. Where are the local newspapers on this issue? Do any of the principals involved belong to the Georgetown BID? If so, their idea of “branding” Georgetown is way off base.

  2. Jayce

    EYESORES! Horrible, and thanks for rasing the issue. Appauld the creativity, but this is not Times Square…

  3. Charlie Eason

    Three cheers for GM for his persistence in following-up on these eyesores.

    Frankly, I’m very disappointed that Anthony Lanier of Eastbanc would ever allow his properties to be used like this. His reputation for “classy” tenants is eroded by this sort of thing. Whatever can he be thinking to allow this sort of thing, especially when he has been told before that they are illegal.

  4. medusa

    GM, you may want to double check this, but it is my understanding that if a landlord leaves a vacant storefront LOOKING vacant after a certain period of time the city ups the property taxes. I heard this from a landlord. He puts mannequins in his windows, wearing unremarkable clothing (i.e, clothing no one would want to bust the window to steal), just to avoid the tax penalty.

    That’s no excuse for the billboards, however.

  5. Randy Roffman

    Mr. Lanier, tear down these billboards!

    -R.R.

  6. GM

    That’s an interesting angle Medusa. Although I don’t think the District has been very good at enforcing the vacant building tax.

    Charlie- maybe the ANC can pass a resolution against these types of ads?

    The funny thing is that I’m normally a big fan of Eastbanc. I just think they’re pursuing an unfortunate strategy here. Even if the ads were approved (which I doubt they’d ever be) this is just really out of place for Georgetown. Given Eastbanc’s other work, you’d think they’d understand that.

  7. Three cheers to GM for bringing this to the public’s attention. The billboards are horrible, and should be removed immediately. I’m really surprised that Anthony Lanier/Eastbanc would allow this.

  8. George Prospect

    Great job GM. How about walking one block up to Prospect and look at the landfill that street has turned into with trash piled high everywhere everyday. Should these property owners/tenants be fined heavily as well? For those tourist/shoppers that visit the community off M street, that is their first view of it.

  9. Charlie Eason

    George Prospect,

    You should make sure your ANC Commissioner is aware of your complaints as I’m sure he would take your concerns to the appropriate city officials.

    Write Bill.Starrels@anc.dc.gov with specific complaints. Bill works hard to address these sorts of issues for his constituents.

  10. bravo on calling out eastbanc here. their explanations don’t pass any kind of sniff test.

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