2009 In Review: The Good, the Bad, and the “We’re Not Sure Yet”

Good:  L.A. Superior Court Judge Terry Green isn’t an expert on toxic substances, but he performed an expert analysis on the city’s noxious 2006 lawsuit settlement that allowed Clear Channel and CBS Outdoor to put up 840 digital billboards by declaring the agreement that denied the public any voice “poison” and sending it to the shredder.

Bad: Self-proclaimed artist Michael McNeilly persuaded a federal judge to issue an injunction barring the city from forcing the removal of multi-story supergraphic signs depicting the statue of liberty, an image McNeilly claims is artistic expression protected by the 1st Amendment.   Some of those signs—big surprise–have since been replaced by commercial advertisements.

Good: McNeilly sought an injunction covering 118 locations, but after evidence was presented that most of those locations had no signs, U.S. District Judge Audrey Collins issued an injunction for only 18, even though she said that McNeilly had no credibility with her court.

Bad: The City Planning Commission gave its okay to putting more than 20,000 square feet of advertising signage (aka billboards) on the façade of the L.A. Convention Center.  If you want a sense of what that means, take the 110 freeway south at night past Staples Center and L.A. Live and look at the big, brilliantly-lit Coca-Cola and Toyota signs facing the freeway, then imagine those signs greatly multiplied and arrayed across the convention center directly in the face of motorists negotiating on one of the busiest freeway interchanges in the city.

Good: At the instigation of the City Attorney’s office, the City Council in August adopted a no-exceptions ban on new off-site and supergraphic signs, and in October Judge Collins denied the inevitable legal challenge (brought by a company named—no kidding–Community Redevelopment Association.)

Area of Proposed Koreatown Sign District

Area of Proposed Koreatown Sign District

We’re Not Sure Yet: The August ban jettisons the exceptions–for sign districts, specific plans, and development agreements–that led to a ruling by Judge Collins last year that the city’s 2002 sign ban was unconstitutional.  But her ruling is now on appeal to the 9th Circuit, and the language of the ban says that if the city wins its appeal the exceptions will again become available.  What then?   A number of proposed sign districts were pending prior to adoption of the ban, and sign districts like the one in Hollywood have enabled a huge proliferation of outdoor advertising.  Lobbyists have been pushing to allow this kind of signage in specific plan areas, and certain development agreements allowing new signage are still in force.    These exceptions are, in essence, a major loophole in the law, and if the city wins its case will the City Council have any incentive to close it?

Good: In 2006, when the city passed the aforementioned lawsuit settlement that gave away the store to these global sign companies, every councilmember voted for it.  In 2009, several of those same councilmembers, including President Eric Garcetti, publicly offered mea culpas, and others are trying to explain that they didn’t know what digital billboards were, or were misled by the City Attorney, or….

We’re Not Sure Yet: The newest Councilmember, Paul Koretz, has called for revoking the permits issued thus far for 101 digital billboards, but the council hasn’t been willing to go that far, opting instead to direct the building department to report on “options” for complying with Judge Green’s ruling.  Garcetti is also spearheading an effort to look at regulations to address issues of light pollution and traffic safety, and other councilmembers think the city should be getting revenue from those and other billboards.  Stay tuned.

Bad: If Clear Channel and CBS Outdoor are allowed to keep their digital billboards, even under much stricter regulation, won’t the city have to allow other sign companies—Lamar Advertising, Van Wagner, Summit Media, among others—to put up their own digital billboards?  And doesn’t that mean an ultimate proliferation of digital billboards, exactly what caused so much uproar in the communities where they’ve appear.

Dennis Hathaway

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