The Ad Barge Brouhaha

| 16 Feb 2015 | 04:57

    Lately, the tug has been plying the Hudson near the New Jersey shore?still in violation, according to New York's Buildings Dept., which claims jurisdiction all the way to New Jersey's low-water mark. It will be interesting to see how the towns across the river?and perhaps ultimately a federal court?react to the notion that New York City has jurisdiction over waters that are not in New York state.

    It's also worth pondering whether a prohibition on floating advertising makes sense in the first place. The zoning rule originated in the 1960s from a similar brouhaha over a billboard barge on the East River. The arguments against floating ads boil down to: (1) They are ugly. (2) They pose a danger of distracting motorists on nearby highways.

    Regarding the first argument, it should be acknowledged that's billboard is indeed pretty ugly. But that's not a good basis for a general ban. There's no clear reason why esthetic considerations should instantly override all other relevant factors: economic benefits, free speech, freedom of the waterways.

    As for the supposed danger to motorists, it's hard to believe that floating ads make much difference, especially given that there are land-based billboards far more prominent in drivers' sights. Manhattan's waterfront highways can be frightening to drive on, but that problem calls for better enforcement of traffic laws, not the highly indirect approach of shielding drivers' eyes from distant, unproven distractions.

    What would happen if the city repealed the ban? Probably not much. Floating billboards are expensive. reportedly is paying $90,000 per month for the tug and barge. They also run a risk of alienating, rather than attracting, customers (especially if the ads are not well-designed). It seems unlikely that New York's rivers would suddenly be covered with barge-based ads.

    But even if the billboards proliferated to the point where they were a real public concern, an outright ban is not necessarily the answer. Why not try a system of permits and time limits for floating ads? Why not raise public revenues by charging advertisers for access to the city's rivers? Why not require a few public-service announcements?

    New York City's founders and developers long understood that the area's vast waterways would facilitate, among other things, commerce. What's the big deal about a few floating commercial messages?

    Kenneth Silber is a freelance writer and frequent visitor to Riverside Park.