The DC Council passed legislation by a vote of 12-1 on Dec. 20 approving Nationals Park digital display boards, despite pleas from neighbors and local leaders to shut down the proposal. Ward 6 Councilmember Charles Allen, who introduced the bill in October, said he and the Council worked on changes to the original bill in response to the concerns. He emphasized that the proposed legislation only deals with Nats Park and the surrounding ballpark area, not any other regions in the city.
If Mayor Muriel Bowser wants to consider allowing other digital signs in the city, language in the bill Tuesday requires she submit the idea to the Council for approval. The mayor’s office will also be required to report each decade on the viability of maintaining entertainment zones like those at Nats Park and the Verizon Center. “We’ve got to be thoughtful about this and as narrow as possible,” Allen said, adding that this does not set a precedent for display boards around the District.
The revised bill includes five boards – down from the original 10 – and prohibits the Nats from facing them toward South Capitol Street, the Anacostia River, M Street, and First Street between M and N streets. It also limits the brightness of the LED lights. The boards can be illuminated between the hours of 7 a.m. and 11 p.m.
Opposition Remains Strong
At the Council meetings on Dec. 6 and Dec. 20, At-Large Councilmember Elissa Silverman voted down the proposal, the only councilmember to do so. She spoke in support of the neighbors’ concerns about light pollution and said they could not have known these giant boards would go up when they decided to move to the neighborhood.
Advisory Neighborhood Commission (ANC) 6D Chair Andy Litsky (04) has called the legislation an “outrage” and a failure of the District government to reach out to neighbors for feedback during the process.
The Nats Park billboard legislation is the fourth exemption from the District’s laws against such digital signage, said. Meg Maguire, incoming vice president of the Committee of 100 on the Federal City. The nonprofit group works to safeguard the city’s historic distinction, livability, and natural or environmental beauty. “The Council has got exemption addiction,” she said. “They want to do these little gifts, one-offs to corporate interests.”
Maguire argued that the three other exemptions have caused significant grief for neighbors around digital signs. The first was in 2000 for about 32 signs on buildings downtown; the second was for the signs hanging near Seventh and H streets NW in Gallery Place; and the third was the Verizon Center’s signs. The signs at the Verizon Center and along Seventh and H streets flash into a mixed-use building’s apartment units and also bounce off the glass into other apartments. It’s a disruption for DC’s residents, she said. “It’s bad public policy to impose these machines on our emerging mixed-use communities,” she said. “Mixed-use is becoming mixed-abuse.”
The bill’s amendments and changes have improved upon the original proposal, Maguire acknowledged. But she still wants more public discussion and consideration for how these large lit signs affect the people living near them. “The notion that if you need to enliven the place you call the billboard company, that’s a slight to the urban design,” she added.
A Failure to Assess Impact
While some of the concessions made in the latest iteration of the bill show progress, the legislation still feels unnecessarily rushed, said Jim Dougherty, president of the International Dark-Sky Association (IDA). “We’re still asking the Council to reject it,” Dougherty remarked prior to the vote. “There’s plenty of time. The bill has gone through a rapid process. What’s the hurry?”
He added that the Council didn’t complete an environmental study for this legislation, another reason to question the process. The IDA wanted the Council to defer the legislation until completion of more comprehensive studies, but the bill passed.
The city needs to consider not only the community, but also the impact these LED displays will have on the surrounding environment, Dougherty said. The bright lights affect insects and migratory birds, especially those in Anacostia Park across the river from the stadium.
The IDA tries to preserve the nighttime skies by fighting light pollution – much of it emanating from large billboards. In the case of migratory birds, light at night disrupts their reliance on the moon and other natural light for flight direction, according to the Fatal Light Awareness Program (FLAP), a nonprofit group in Canada that promotes education on the effects of light on birds. Birds will circle lights, confused, until they fall or run into the buildings and die, FLAP states. The light also attracts them into the city and leaves them to navigate the buildings and people when day breaks.
Light can damage the historic views for which the nation’s capital is known. “It ruins the sweeping view of the rivers and the Capitol,” Dougherty said of the views in Wards 7 and 8. “Now their nighttime view will be dominated by this bright, multicolored video display.”
The Nats plan to put up the boards before they host the 2018 Major League Baseball All-Star Game.