Billboard Relocation: Latest Plan to Unleash Digital Billboards in L.A.

Under latest plan, Clear Channel could take down three billboards like the one on the left in East L.A. and turn on the digital billboard, right, in West L.A.

Under latest plan, Clear Channel could take down three billboards like the one on the left in East L.A. and turn on the digital billboard, right, in West L.A.

The slow-moving but relentless push for more digital billboards on L.A.’s commercial streets got a boost last week with the unveiling of a detailed plan for allowing the now-prohibited signs. Presented to the City Council’s Planning and Land Use Management (PLUM) committee, the plan would require billboard companies to make payments to the city and remove a certain number of existing billboards in exchange for the right to put up new signs of the highly lucrative digital variety.

The committee directed city agencies to develop a legal framework to implement the digital billboard plan, even though the City Planning Commission (CPC) last year approved a new citywide sign ordinance that restricts the brightly-lit signs with rapidly changing ads to sign districts in a limited number of high-intensity commercial areas. That action would put those signs off-limits in more than 80 per cent of the city’s commercial zones.

With certain exceptions, new billboards and alterations to existing billboards have been banned in L.A. since 2002 and digital billboards have been explicitly prohibited since 2009. However, state law allows cities to enter into relocation agreements with billboard companies, which means that a billboard can be moved from one location to another without running afoul of billboard bans such as L.A.’s.

This law, intended to relieve cities from the burden of paying large amounts in compensation if a billboard has to be removed from private property for a street widening or other public works project, has been advocated by billboard giant Clear Channel as a mechanism for not only putting up new digital billboards, but turning on many of the 99 digital billboards that went dark by court order three years ago.

In the CLA’s plan, the relocation agreements would allow new digital billboards to be put up or the existing digital billboards to be turned on in locations of the companies’ choice without hearings and approvals by zoning officials or local planning commissions. As long as the companies agree to make a specified annual payment to the city, take down a certain number of existing billboards, and meet restrictions regarding location and illumination, permits for the new or re-activated digital billboards would be issued “by right.”

This, of course, directly contradicts what billboard company representatives and pro-digital billboard politicians have said for several years, which is that communities should be able to choose whether or not they want the signs on their commercial streets.  If people in North Hollywood or East L.A. see the billboards as bringing benefits to their community, the argument went, they should have them; if people in Silverlake or Westwood see them as a detriment, they should be able to say no.

Be that as it may, here are the details of the CLA’s plan: A billboard company wishing to put up a new digital billboard could choose to remove existing billboards at a ratio ranging from 2:1 to 9:1, based on square footage of sign face. A standard full-sized billboard is 672 sq. ft., so two of those or some other number of signs adding up to 1,300-plus square feet would have to removed. If a billboard company chose the 2:1 ratio, it would have to pay the city an annual fee of $250,000, but if it took down existing billboards at higher ratios the required fee would incrementally decrease, up to the 9:1 ratio, which would not trigger any fee payment.

The plan also recommends that companies putting up new digital billboards provide “community benefits” to offset the negative impacts of the new signage. These include streetscape improvements, public art programs, and funding for transit-related services, among others.

There are some proposed restrictions on where the new digital billboards could be put. For example, in public parks, along designated scenic highways, in historic preservation zones, and areas zoned neighborhood or limited commercial. The plan also proposes a limit on the light cast by the billboards, although the method of measurement is widely regarded as an inaccurate reflection of the brightness of the signs that employ thousand of LED lights, and many cities, including L.A., have begun using a newer, more accurate method that measures the light at its source.

After listening to these details, along with a related report by the City Administrative Officer (CAO) and comment from members of the public, PLUM committee chairman Jose Huizar closed the discussion by directing the city agencies, with the assistance of the city planning department and City Attorney’s office, to return with additional details needed to implement the plan, which would require ultimate approval by the full City Council.

Despite the fact that the issue has drawn heated public debate, and the plan represents the first detailed step in the direction of allowing new digital members on most commercial streets, not a single member of the committee other than Huizar had any comment or question for the city officials presenting the reports.

Before moving on to other items on the committee’s agenda, Huizar also got in a swipe at the City Planning Commission, which he has accused in the past of overstepping its bounds by making changes to the sign ordinance sent to it by the committee. Those changes mean that the City Council will need a supermajority, or 10 votes, to overrule the commission’s approval of an ordinance that restricts new digital signs to sign districts.

Huizar also raised an issue that has been alluded to but not explicitly discussed by committee members in the past, which is the idea that the less affluent City Council districts have borne the brunt of billboard blight in the past, and are therefore particularly deserving of the relief promised by the takedown provisions of the CLA’s digital billboard plan.

The councilman, whose district encompasses most of downtown and the majority Latino communities of East L.A. and Boyle Heights, pointed to statistics in the CAO report showing that his district ranks first among the city’s 15 council districts in number of billboards. The district, along with two South L.A. districts, have 36% of the total billboards in the city, Huizar said.  And while the City Planning Commission’s restriction of new digital billboards to sign districts also includes a requirement that any new signs be offset by the takedown of existing billboards, Huizar said that this would not result in a significant reduction of billboards in those districts.

But are Huizar’s East L.A. district and the two predominately Latino and African American districts in South L.A. he cited really disproportionately blighted by billboards? According to city records, Huizar’s district has 772 billboard faces, which is the highest of any of the 15 council districts. Council districts 8 and 9, represented by council members Marqueece Harris-Dawson and Curren Price, respectively, who also happen to be members of the PLUM committee, each have 719 billboard faces, ranking them second to Huizar’s district.

However, if those districts are ranked by total square footage of billboard faces, Huizar’s district ranks 7th, and the other two 11th and 13th. In fact, the district ranked first on this scale, councilman Paul Koretz’s predominately westside district, has 279,000 sq. ft., compared to 165,000 sq. ft. in Huizar’s district and only 97,000 sq. ft. in Price’s district. Which means that Koretz’s more affluent district has fewer billboard structures than those other districts, but the billboards have significantly larger faces and therefore display larger, more prominent advertisements. Thus, the argument over which districts are disproportionately blighted by billboards turns on the question of what is the major source of the blight, the billboard’s structure or the advertising displayed on the face.

The council districts ranked 2nd, 3rd, and 4th in terms of square footage of billboard space each have more than 200,000 sq. ft. Along with Kortez’s district, those districts represented by Mike Bonin, David Ryu, and Mitch O’Farrell also happen to be the ones in which Clear Channel and Outfront Media put up all but a handful of 101 digital billboards beginning in 2007 and ending with a moratorium at the end of 2008. Those districts not only had more full-sized billboards to convert to digital but are among the most affluent in the city and therefore more attractive to advertisers paying premium rates for the 8-second spots on the signs.

It’s therefore no mystery why Koretz, Bonin, and Ryu have publicly announced their opposition to allowing digital billboards anywhere outside sign districts, as per the City Planning Commission action. Councilman Paul Krekorian has also publicly opposed plans to allow new digital billboards outside sign districts on private property, although none of the 101 signs went up in his San Fernando Valley district. O’Farrell hasn’t taken as definite a stand as his four colleagues, but has told constituents that he was happy with the planning commission’s action.

If the plan presented this week to allow digital billboards beyond those limited sign districts is eventually approved, Clear Channel could turn on most of the 84 billboards it put up in 2007-2008. Likewise, Outfront Media. And the city’s third major billboard company, Lamar Advertising, which owns some 3,000 small billboards in mostly lower-income neighborhoods, could erect new digital billboards on commercial thoroughfares in areas with the more affluent consumers valued by advertisers.

For example, the plan would allow Clear Channel to turn on a now-dark digital billboard on Santa Monica Blvd. in West L.A. in exchange for removing two or three old, rundown billboards in council district 8 in south L.A. and paying the city an annual fee of $250,000. That might seem a great deal for Harris-Dawson, who represents that district and has complained of billboard blight there, but what of people in the residential neighborhood adjacent to that Santa Monica Blvd. billboard who repeatedly complained of constantly changing light cast into their homes and brilliantly lit ads for products and services looming beyond their roofs in the night sky.

A fourth member of the PLUM committee, Gil Cedillo, whose district west and north of downtown includes some of the city’s poorest areas, could also benefit from the removal of old, blighted billboards, especially since Clear Channel and company are not likely to look at most of the district as fertile ground for new digital billboards. The fifth member, Mitchell Englander, represents a much more affluent district in the northwest San Fernando Valley, but the predominately residential district has by far the fewest number of billboards in the city and probably wouldn’t be a major target for companies wanting to put up new digital signs.

As mentioned above, the plan would require votes from 10 of the 15 city council members since it conflicts with the ordinance approved by the planning commission.  If council members Bonin, Koretz, Ryu, and Krekorian maintain their current stands, and are joined by O’Farrell, they could block that action since one council seat is currently vacant.  However, that vacancy will be filled in the upcoming city election and a new council member will be seated on July 1 or next year.

There are some other hurdles as well.  A Clear Channel representative has written a letter to the committee criticizing the takedown ratios as too high, and arguing that instead of a set annual fee the companies and city should negotiate a fee for each relocation agreement.  Regency Advertising and Summit Media, two of the city’s small billboard companies, have also argued for lower takedown ratios and fees on the grounds that the proposed plan would shut them out of the process.

And City Attorney Mike Feuer, who unsuccessfully sponsored a statewide moratorium on digital billboards when he was a state assembly member, has not weighed in on the possible legal ramifications of the billboard relocation scheme.  Feuer has already poured cold water on one of the PLUM committee’s earlier proposals, which was to grant “amnesty” to all unpermitted and non-compliant billboards in the city.

To read the CLA and CAO reports in the city’s council files, click here.

Orwellian Logic: When Illegal Signs are Really Legal

1020-victoria-ave-3

In April of this year, the Los Angeles Department of Building and Safety issued a permit for temporary construction fence signs at the site of a church on Lincoln Blvd. In Venice. Those signs have since advertised movies, TV shows, and Airbnb to an audience of motorists on one of the most gridlocked thoroughfares on the west side of the city.

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Getting it Wrong: An Open Letter to L.A. City Councilman Mitchell Englander (and his PLUM committee colleagues)

City Hall Stop Sign

Dear Councilman Englander:

At the August 23 meeting of the City Council’s PLUM committee, you publicly accused me of putting out false information in the articles I write about billboard and signage issues. Specifically, in asking a city official for clarification of a point under discussion, you said, “Because I want to make sure that when Mr. Hathaway writes about this, since he gets it wrong most of the time, that he hears it clearly.”

I consider this an attack on my personal integrity, because I always strive to be factually accurate and avoid taking things out of context or otherwise trafficking in misinformation. For example, before writing about PLUM committee meetings I almost always listen to the meeting audio, to make sure that I heard things correctly and that I accurately quote committee members and other speakers. I have a definite point of view about the signage issues the PLUM committee deals with, but that doesn’t mean I believe in using less than ethical and honest means to promote that view.

But your accusation was more than just an attack on me, it was an attack on the very idea that L.A. residents are entitled to be fully informed on the issues that affect them, in this case issues of billboard and signage regulation. That’s because the large majority of those residents can’t come to PLUM committee meetings to hear the discussion firsthand. Unlike lobbyists, billboard company representatives, and others who are paid to attend these meetings, most community people can’t take time off work, arrange child care, and make the necessary adjustments needed to attend a weekday meeting at City Hall. So, without someone reporting on the details of those meetings, they are denied the knowledge they need and deserve to form opinions and make decisions about the issues at hand.

I’m not paid, either, but I’m fortunate enough to be at a stage of my life that I can devote a significant amount of time to a cause I consider very important to the mental and physical health of communities throughout L.A. And an important part of that effort is to inform those citizens who want to know what their elected representatives are doing about billboards and signage but don’t have time to attend the many meetings held on the topic or read the many lengthy reports issued at various points in the deliberative process.

Unfortunately, your public statement at the Aug. 24 PLUM committee meeting tells those citizens, in essence, that the information they read online at the BanBillboardBlight website or in CityWatch or hear in public service programs on local radio stations is “wrong most of the time.” Doubly unfortunate is the fact that you didn’t specify a single instance of what you considered wrong, so it’s just an accusation put out there, deliberately or otherwise, to create doubt in some people’s minds that what they’re reading and hearing is factually accurate.

I have been writing articles about PLUM committee actions and deliberations, as well as those of the City Planning Commission and other government agencies, for almost nine years. In that time, not a single billboard company lobbyist or billboard company executive or employee has approached me and said that something I wrote was false. Not a single member of the PLUM committee, present or past, has contacted me to make that complaint. Not a single City Councilmember, not a single city planner or member of the city attorney’s staff or any other city official involved with billboard and signage issues has told me that something I wrote was inaccurate.

You surely understand that people come to meetings and otherwise involve themselves in community affairs, not because they are paid to, but because they believe in a vision of a better community and a better city. Those people deserve the respect and even the encouragement of their elected representatives, regardless of where they happen to stand on a particular project or issue. Those people deserve access to as much information as possible, so that they can make the kind of informed decisions that are in important part of the bedrock of a democratic system.

I hope you will take that into consideration before making unsupported accusations against someone who has volunteered his time and energy to disseminate that information as widely as possible and help make the system work the way it was intended.

Sincerely,

Dennis Hathaway

Coming Attractions: New Digital Billboards on L.A. City Streets?

Will this digital billboard re-appear?  In this location, or elsewhere?  Photo from 2010.

Will this digital billboard re-appear? In this location, or elsewhere? Photo from 2010.

New digital billboards are going to start popping up along L.A.’s streets and freeways, probably sooner than later. The only questions are exactly where these brightly-lighted signs with rapidly-changing ads will appear, and how many will ultimately brighten the landscape with their shiny sales pitches to motorists, cyclists, and pedestrians on those congested thoroughfares.

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Failure to Get the Memo: New L.A. Bus Shelter Ads With Guns

Suicide Squad

Earlier this summer, the bus shelter pictured above displayed an ad for the movie, “Central Intelligence,” which depicted two men brandishing and blasting away with guns. But after complaints were raised about the bus shelter’s proximity to nearby schools, the ad was changed to a public service message featuring Smokey the Bear.  (more…)

Alcohol Ads on Billboards: Marketing to Youth?

Billboard just a building away from a community center for low-income youth.

Billboard just a building away from a community center for low-income youth.

In 2006, the Journal of the American Medical Association published the results of a large-scale study of the effects of alcohol advertising on youth drinking. The conclusion: Exposure to alcohol advertising on TV, radio, and billboards contributes to increased drinking by underage youth, which in turn contributes to such problems as poor grades in school, risky sex, alcohol addiction, and car crashes.

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L.A.’s Digital Billboard Debate: It’s the Revenue, Stupid

This Clear Channel digital billboard was shut off by court order in 2013.

This Clear Channel digital billboard was shut off by court order in 2013.

The political debate over allowing new digital billboards in L.A. has little to do with issues like traffic safety, light pollution and energy use. In fact, it’s not even a debate in the classic sense but can be characterized as an interplay of two powerful desires. Clear Channel and other big billboard companies badly want to put up the electronic signs on city streets and freeways and the City Council desperately wants to find new sources of revenue.

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Movie Ads, Gun Violence, and Smokey the Bear

Central Intelligence 3

On Wednesday morning, people traveling busy Lincoln Blvd. in Venice could have seen the bus shelter ad pictured at left above while listening on their car radios to news of a UCLA professor being shot to death in his office. Whether or not that grim news would have triggered any reflection upon the propriety of using the city’s public sidewalks for a display of men blasting away with guns is impossible to know.

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Billboard Company Lobbying: Half a Million in First Quarter of 2016

Billboard company lobbyists Morrie Goldman, left, and David Gershwin. Clear Channel paid Goldman's firm $90,000 and Gershwin's $45,000 in the first quarter of 2016

Billboard company lobbyists Morrie Goldman, left, and David Gershwin. Clear Channel paid Goldman’s firm $90,000 and Gershwin’s $45,000 in the first quarter of 2016

Billboard companies spent $507,000 lobbying Los Angeles city officials in the first quarter of 2016, according to City Ethics Commission records. Those companies and their executives also donated a total of $9,100 to six city councilmembers running for re-election in 2017.

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Digital Billboards: Planning Commission Says NO, Council Committee Says YES

L.A. City Council PLUM committee, from left: Jose Huizar, Mitchell Englander, Gil Cedillo, Felipe Fuentes, Marqueece Harris-Dawson

L.A. City Council PLUM committee, from left: Jose Huizar, Mitchell Englander, Gil Cedillo, Felipe Fuentes, Marqueece Harris-Dawson

Despite the unanimous opposition of the City Planning Commission, an L.A. City Council committee is pushing ahead with a plan that could ultimately result in new digital billboards going up in a wide area of the city.

Last fall, the planning commission approved a new citywide sign ordinance that restricts the brightly-lighted signs with rapidly changing ads to special sign districts in a limited number of high-intensity commercial areas. At a meeting this week, the council’s Planning and Land Use Management (PLUM) committee turned a cold shoulder to that idea, and directed three city departments to jointly develop detailed proposals for allowing the currently prohibited signs outside those restricted areas, either on city-owned property or on both public and private property.

Committee chairman Jose Huizar said these proposals need to include revenue sharing to the city, funding for sign law enforcement, and the removal of billboards blighting various neighborhoods. This is an about-face from 2015, when Huizar was running for re-election and his answer to a candidates’s questionnaire seemed to support restricting digital billboards to sign districts.

Committee members Felipe Fuentes and Marqueece Harris-Dawson both complained that the City Planning Commission’s restriction of new digital billboards to sign districts wouldn’t result in the removal of billboard blight from their districts, in the east San Fernando Valley and South L.A., respectively.

The ordinance approved by the planning commission requires that new digital billboards in sign districts be offset by the takedown of existing billboards in surrounding communities at a square footage ratio of ten to one. In that ordinance, sign districts are only allowed in 22 areas of the city zoned regional center or regional commercial, such as downtown, Universal City, Warner Center, LAX, Century City, and the Coliseum/USC area, among others.

There are no sign district-eligible areas in Fuentes’s district, but there are two in an adjacent district, in Van Nuys and Panorama City. The ordinance approved by the planning commission doesn’t limit the required billboard takedown to a specific distance from a sign district, and commissioners discussed expanding the takedown area to the entire city, although that provision wasn’t included in the final version of the ordinance.

At the committee meeting, Harris-Dawson called many of the existing billboards in his district “a big, giant sore thumb.” That district includes a sizeable sign district-eligible area in the Baldwin Hills/Crenshaw Plaza commercial area, and under the planning commission’s ordinance a new full-size digital billboard could be put up there only if 10 full-size billboards or a larger number of smaller billboards were first removed in the surrounding community.

Neither Fuentes or Harris-Dawson mentioned the fact that a city survey has shown that more than a hundred billboards in those councilmembers’ districts have either been erected or altered without required permits. In a letter to the PLUM committee last year, City Attorney Mike Feuer said his office was ready to help take enforcement action against many billboards across the city that fall into that category, but to date the committee members haven’t responded to that offer.

There was little discussion by committee members about the city’s prospect of getting revenue from new digital billboards, although that’s been a central point of a vigorous lobbying campaign by a coalition of billboard companies that want to put up an untold number of new digital billboards along freeways and city streets. That coalition includes the three largest billboard operators in the city—Clear Channel, Outfront Media, and Lamar Advertising.

Councilmember Paul Krekorian has put forth a proposal to allow new digital billboards on city-owned property in exchange for a share of revenue and the takedown a certain number of existing billboards, but the councilmember’s proposal leaves details such as the exact number of new billboards and their locations to be worked out.

Councilman Gil Cedillo, a PLUM committee member, floated a proposal two years ago to allow new digital billboards in any commercial area through a conditional use permit process. And Clear Channel, which owns 84 digital billboards that have been shut off by court order since 2013, has pushed for city permission to relocate some of those billboards, ostensibly to locations where they aren’t as likely to generate complaints from nearby residential neighborhoods.

All those proposals got a firm thumbs down from the planning commission, whose members agreed that any digital signs should be restricted to sign districts where their size, brightness, and hours of operation could be strictly regulated to minimize potential traffic hazards, light pollution, and adverse affects on surrounding residential neighborhoods..

The major billboard companies have long opposed these restrictions, and while none have publicly commented on Krekorian’s proposal, it’s unlikely that they are happy with the prospect of being allowed new digital billboards only on a limited number of properties owned by the city.

In fact, Lamar Advertising sued the city in 2013 for the right to put up 45 new digital billboards in specific locations in a wide area of the city. The Louisiana-based company won a favorable ruling from a Los Angeles Superior Court judge, but the California Appeals Court overturned that ruling earlier this year, upholding the city’s right to ban those signs.

Another 2014 proposal, by committee member Mitchell Englander, called for granting “amnesty” to all unpermitted and out-of-compliance billboards in the city, but there was no mention of it at this week’s meeting. The planning commission emphatically rejected the idea, calling instead for the city to begin enforcing the law against all illegal billboards.

Neither Englander nor Cedillo commented on the planning commission’s action during this week’s PLUM committee meeting. Both councilmembers, as well as Huizar, have received significant financial support from billboard companies in their past election campaigns. And Englander has gotten a number of campaign contributions from billboard companies and their lobbyists in his current bid for election in November to the L.A. County Board of Supervisors.

Follow the Money: Billboard Companies and Their Lobbyists Support City Councilman’s Campaign

The Season For Giving: Billboard Companies Open Their Pockets For City Council Candidates

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