In an unprecedented show of unity, members from different sectors of the Condado community came together this week in an old fashioned sit-in, on the sidewalk opposite the newly renovated Vanderbilt Hotel, to protest the clandestine installation of a 60-foot high, 20-foot wide, multisided, illuminated, mega billboard in a parking lot in the heart of the “Fifth Avenue of Condado,” Ashford Avenue.
The first alarm was sounded over the Labor Day weekend, on Saturday morning while many people in the area were away for the long holiday. A flatbed truck arrived in the parking lot owned by José Passalaqua and rented to the AVIS Car company, and work began digging trenches, laying pipe and cable and erecting a 40-foot tall circular base.
José “Peco” Suárez, director of the Vanderbilt, and his team went to investigate the work site and were informed of the installation, which supposedly had a permit issued to a company, AR5 Outdoor Media from OIGP or the Office of the Inspector General of Permits to erect the mega structure on the site.
Suárez immediately notified John Fucile, founder of the community group, Renace Condado, Jorge Roig, leader of the business community, and various local residents and business owners, asking them to join him to review and evaluate the situation. The group agreed and was united in its opinion that mega billboards had no place in the tourist area of Condado.
Mario González, former head of the Puerto Rico Tourism Co. who attended the gathering, described the protest as legitimate adding that the sign being placed in a prime tourist zone needs Tourism Company endorsement, which had not happened. He added that without that approval, the sign company should not have been able to get a permit to construct anything.
Meanwhile, Maruja Serbia, community representative and liaison to the San Juan mayor’s office, agreed with González: the permit could not be valid without the endorsement of both Tourism and the mayor’s office due to the project’s location in a major tourist area.
Damián Pagán, head of security for La Concha hotel, wondered out loud how the structure had gotten any kind of approval.
“The sign is twice the size of any sign along this high profile tourist and residential avenue,” Pagán said. “This is the kind of a sign you see on major highways, not in the middle of a major tourist and residential area.”
One person who lives on Barranquitas Street directly facing the intended sign remarked, “It would be like installing a 70-inch LED TV in my bedroom at the foot of my bed and leaving it on 24/7; lights flashing and action on the screen. 24/7!!! How can you live with that without causing damage to your life?”A flatbed truck arrived and began digging trenches, laying pipe and cable and erecting a 40-foot tall circular base.
Legal action on a holiday
Legal action was immediately taken, albeit it was Labor Day holiday weekend, which the installers were counting on, and an order to cease and desist was issued by the court. The Municipal Police enforced it and work was halted.
After the initial hearing on Tuesday after the Labor Day Holiday, the hearing officer of OIGP determined that they had indeed issued the permit but that it had numerous irregularities (including not having the Tourism Co.’s endorsement). The permit was revoked until a hearing scheduled for Sept. 24 in San Juan Superior Court to determine the disposition of the permit and the work in progress. With the existing permit revoked, no additional work can be done on the project.
Nevertheless, earlier this week on Monday, in the early hours before sunrise, the flatbed truck arrived once again and installed an additional 20-foot section of the tower in preparation to receive the billboard portion (the two sides of the 20 feet by 10 feet area of illumination) in violation of the cease and desist order, which had technically expired, and ignoring the revocation of their existing permit. Personnel from the Vanderbilt called the police but, like a covert air strike, the installers were in, installed the piece, and were gone before the police arrived.Condado community leaders met this week to map a strategy to address the billboard’s installation.
A plan of action in place
On Tuesday night, leaders from different sectors of the Condado community, along with residents and other concerned citizens, met at the Vanderbilt Hotel to draft a plan of action to prepare for next week’s legal hearing and show solidarity against these clandestine actions by the company that appeared intent on completing the installation prior to the hearing when it would be much more difficult to remove the structure.
As the group was meeting, at about 9 p.m., a hotel manager ran into the room shouting that the flatbed truck had arrived across the street with additional installation material, and the cops had been called. The group of about 20 people ran to the street and the site to the shock and surprise of the truck driver and his crew, screaming and yelling that this was illegal and they had to stop immediately.
As to be expected, when the police arrived, there was some confusion as to who was doing what to whom; the group was asked to produce the cease and desist order. They did and the police were set straight by the community and informed that it was not they who had the burden of proof but that these workers, arriving in the dark of night, had the burden to produce a legal and valid work permit which, of course they could not.
In an act of unity and solidarity, the group sat down on the sidewalk and refused to allow the truck to exit the property with the materials until an agreement was reached. Eventually, at close to midnight, an agreement was reached, materials were left in place and the truck was allowed to exit the property.
The group vowed to stand watch in a 24-hour vigil to prevent any further work being done on the site; a tent was erected and a round-the-clock watch has been held to make sure no further late night work is done. The group vowed to stay until the legal hearing next Thursday and do whatever it legally takes to prevent the completion of the project.
A sign-up sheet was prepared and local businesses, neighbors and even tourists were asked to sign to express their disapproval of the project. As of Thursday, more than 400 signatures had been collected with letters and emails arriving daily from residents of the surrounding buildings who are off the island but following the events via Facebook and Internet.
The community groups fully expect the hearing to find in favor of its petition and that the mega sign be dismantled immediately.
Editor’s Note: Executive José Passalaqua told media outlets this week he is confident he will prevail in court.