City billboard suit spooks Montage on Mass developers

A controversial piece of the proposed $50 million Montage on Mass mixed-use apartment project won’t be considered by the city of Indianapolis until after the first of the year.

The five-story, 236-unit development at Massachusetts Avenue’s intersection with New Jersey Street near Old National Centre in downtown Indy features a “digital canvas” that already has been reduced in size from its original design.

Now a federal suit filed by a local billboard firm against the city of Indianapolis, claiming a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision makes the city’s sign ordinance unconstitutional, is delaying action on the electronic-mesh art display.

“It seems as though legal issues are bleeding into that part of the [Montage on Mass] project,” attorney Michael Rabinowitch told the Indianapolis Historic Preservation Commission on Oct. 7.

Rabinowitch represents the project’s developers — J.C. Hart, Strongbox Commercial and architect Schmidt and Associates.

IHPC agreed to delay discussion on the electronic display until January, in hopes that the City-County Council will take some sort of action on the digital billboard issue at its Nov. 9 meeting.

Digital billboards are banned in Indianapolis, though the billboard industry has been negotiating to get the prohibition lifted. Some City-County Council members are concerned that the massive screen proposed for the Montage on Mass building amounts to a digital billboard.

“This is a very contentious issue, because it does involve the whole digital billboard controversy, and who knows how that’s going to end up,” IHPC member James Kienle said at the October meeting.

The issue is so contentious that it might take months to hash out, said City-County Councilor Zach Adamson, whose district will include Mass Ave if he is re-elected next month,

“It’s going to have to go through a lot of dialogue,” he said.

At issue is the federal lawsuit filed Oct. 5 by GEFT Outdoor LLC.

It asks a judge to bar the city from enforcing its ban on digital billboards, among other complaints involving billboard content. Indianapolis banned digital billboards in 2003.

GEFT's lawsuit alleges Indianapolis violates the First Amendment by having different standards for "on premises" and "off premises" signs. The on-premises signs, which advertise solely for the business in the same location as the sign, are allowed to have digital content. Off-premises signs, which advertise for a business or product located or made available elsewhere, are not allowed to have digital content.

GEFT filed the suit after the Supreme Court of the United States, in Reed v. Town of Gilbert, ruled in June that the Arizona town had violated the First Amendment by placing limits on the size of signs announcing church services.

Meantime, the developers have separated the design of Montage on Mass from the digital billboard when presenting their plans to IHPC, so the project can move forward without final approval of a billboard design.

The developers are open to replacing the billboard with a large commissioned piece of art, they said.

IHPC members are set to again consider the design of the building Nov. 4.

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