Are Billboards Good For Business? For One Major U.S. City, the Answer Is An Emphatic NO

Left, billboards in L.A.; right, a Houston commercial street

Houston, Texas, the fourth-largest city in the U.S, has some definite similarities to Los Angeles in terms of size, racial and ethnic diversity, and spread of suburbs far beyond a central city core.  One thing L.A. doesn’t share with Houston, though, is the latter city’s long-standing commitment to reducing the number of billboards, both as a beautification measure and a stimulus to economic development.

That might sound strange, given the fact that representatives of business groups in L.A. repeatedly argue against measures to limit and reduce signage on the grounds that economic activity will suffer and jobs will be lost.  Contrast that attitude with this statement last week by Houston mayor Annise Parker, in response to a  court decision that will result in the take down of 59 billboards in that city of 2.2 million people.

“This is another major victory in the long-running battle to reduce visual blight. Sign control, an attractive urban streetscape and green space equal a formula designed not only to insure the quality of life for Houstonians but a recipe for economic success.”

One way economic success can be quantified is by the current unemployment rate, which stands at 8.7% in the Houston metropolitan area, almost one percentage point lower than the national rate of 9.6%.  By contrast, the current unemployment rate in the L.A. metropolitan area is 12.1%, two-and-and-a-half points higher than the national rate, and three-and-a-half points higher than Houston’s.  (Figures from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics)

Thirty years ago, when the number of billboards in L.A. was steadily increasing and calls to limit them were falling on deaf ears at city hall, politicians in Houston reacted to the visual clutter and blight created by some 10,000 billboards and slapped an absolute ban on any new ones.  Through a process of attrition, redevelopment, and reduction measures, that number has been reduced to about 3,000 today, while at the same time an aggressive program of tree planting and other streetscape improvements has created notably green and attractive commercial streets that provide a sharp contrast to some of L.A.’s sign-choked and visually cluttered thoroughfares.

The ban also prohibited the conversion of conventional billboards to digital, so while L.A. now has 100 of the brightly-lighted, rapidly changing signs that have provoked many complaints from local neighborhoods, Houston has none.  And unlike L.A., Houston has no provision for sign districts where digital signs and other types prohibited citywide can be allowed.

Is the Houston business community complaining that this has hurt business and cost jobs?   Not at all.  It appears that support for the proposition articulated by mayor Parker—that reducing the number of billboards is good for business—is embraced both by the general public and local business interests.

Clark Martinson is general manager of Houston’s Energy Corridor District, a kind of business improvement district comprising 1,500 acres on both sides of Interstate 10 where it cuts through the center of the city.  In an e-mail response to questions about the business community’s view of banning and reducing the number of billboards, Martinson said, “The 1980 ban on new billboards and the resulting significant reduction in billboard numbers, through redevelopment and attrition, has had no negative effects on economic development and property values in Houston.”

“The Houston business community generally supports  the ban on new billboards, and  ongoing  efforts to continue to reduce the existing billboard  inventory,”  Martinson continued.  “Since 1980, Houston business activity (sales tax collections, retail sales figures, office occupancy rates, etc) has not dropped due to the fact that Houston has many fewer billboards.”

This view was echoed in an e-mail from Madeleine Appel, deputy director of the Houston city controller’s office, and a former chief aide for 16 years to a city council member.

“The ban on billboards, from my observation as a city employee since 1980, has had absolutely NO negative effect on economic development and property values,” Appel said.  “The business community seems to have bought into the scenic community’s belief that one of the things that makes Houston a good place to live, work, and create businesses is the aesthetic environment-which, in part, means less billboard clutter and more green.”

Confirming this is the fact that the Greater Houston Partnership, which functions as the city’s chamber of commerce, formed the Quality of Life Coalition, an umbrella group of business and civic organizations with an ambitious agenda of promoting tree planting and landscaping, park construction, and control of billboards and signage.   The group’s statement of purpose on billboards and signage reads as follows:

“Our community’s beauty is too often hidden behind billboards and private signage that are both larger and more extensive than those allowed in other competitive cities. Houston’s Quality of Life Coalition supports active enforcement of the city’s billboard ordinances and banning construction of further billboards in the greater Houston area and the state. It supports changes in the city’s signage ordinances to make Houston competitive with other cities by reducing the number and size of signs.”

Appel said she believes the reason the Quality of Life Coalition was created was because “the business community recognized that a city with trees and landscaping which bloom without being blocked by billboards was a more appealing place in which to do business than a city in which forests of billboards dotted the so-called landscape.”

That sentiment is in stark contrast to those expressed by representatives of such groups as the L.A. Chamber of Commerce, the Central City Association, and the Valley Industry and Commerce Association, who invariably show up at city commission and council committee meetings to warn about the adverse affects on business and jobs that will result from limits on billboards and signage.

Among actions publicly opposed by those groups and others were the 2008 moratorium on new digital billboards and off-site signs, a ban on supergraphic signs in the Hollywood sign district, limitations on both off-site and on-site signs included in a revised citywide sign ordinance, and a billboard tax proposed just this month.  Those groups and others have also supported a large expansion of off-site signage, such as the proposal to put 50,000 sq. ft. of advertising signage on the façade of the L.A. convention center.

Some of the measures to reduce and limit billboards and signage in L.A.  have also been opposed by labor unions, as well as non-profit organizations that have argued in particular that digital billboards are needed as outlets for public service announcements.

Dennis Hathaway

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