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City Neighborhoods
Video screen at new CAPA school must remain dark

Friday, July 11, 2003

By Gary Rotstein, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

The curtain rises on Pittsburgh's new Downtown performing arts high school in less than two months, but it may be missing one key feature.

A three-story-high video screen facing the Allegheny River from the wall of the Pittsburgh High School for the Creative and Performing Arts will have to remain dark while the city Zoning Board of Adjustment reviews whether it should be permitted at all.

Representatives of the city Law Department and nonprofit Riverlife Task Force objected at a zoning board hearing yesterday, saying the 30-foot-by-21-foot board on Fort Duquesne Boulevard violated restrictions on Downtown signs. They also said Pittsburgh Public Schools ignored necessary procedures to have it approved.

Unlike most building signs that are a form of corporate advertising, school officials said, the CAPA building's Panasonic screen would provide an electronic display of student artwork, live performances and coming events.

They acknowledged that they failed to seek official "sign" approval from the zoning administrator, but said it was because they believed city planning commission and Planning Department officials had already consented to the screen during public and private meetings prior to construction.

A city building inspector told school officials to turn off the screen when it was put through a test run on June 3, leading to the school district's application to the zoning board for sign approval.

At stake is a high-tech feature that cost the district $2.7 million as part of the six-story, $38.5 million CAPA school. Work is expected to be finished by September at the former gas station site at Ninth Street and Fort Duquesne Boulevard.

The black screen is a tall rectangle, spanning floors three through five, on one side of the red brick building. It is designed to be visible from the North Shore, highlighting the creative work that takes place inside the school. District officials said they planned no advertising on it.

"It's obviously something we've counted on for our program," said Richard Fellers, the school district's chief of operations. "People talk about the school district wasting taxpayers' money. We've only wasted the money if they don't let us turn it on."

Lisa Schroeder, executive director of the Riverlife Task Force, which seeks to coordinate planning around the Golden Triangle, noted that the 648-square-foot size of the screen represents "an extraordinary expansion" beyond the 18 square feet permitted for building signs in the urban zoning code.

"Current regulations have been crafted to allow signage that is integrated into the urban fabric and that enhances rather than dominates our streetscapes and riverfront edges," Schroeder said. "There is currently no way to measure the effect of such an enormous illuminated and animated sign on the edge of our rivers."

Assistant city solicitor George Specter said the school district's plan for the sign raised both legal concerns about failure to abide by the zoning code and "quality of life" concerns about riverfront aesthetics.

If use of the sign is banned, school officials said, they could try to sell it to recoup part of the cost, but they would also incur expense to reconstruct the exterior wall where the sign is removed.

Ira Weiss, the school district's lawyer, noted after the hearing that conflicts have sometimes existed between the Murphy administration and school district officials. He said it would be "disturbing" if those tensions played a role in preventing use of the sign for educational purposes.

"The thing that was there before was a gas station -- we can always put the Gulf sign back up there, if that's what they want," Weiss commented.

The board is to remain dark while the zoning board reviews legal issues in the case, which is expected to take at least seven weeks, or about the same time span before classes begin in the new school.

Gary Rotstein can be reached at grotstein@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1255.

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