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

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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

Action Needed: L.A.’s New Citywide Sign Ordinance At PLUM Committee April 19

 

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The Los Angeles City Council’s PLUM committee is scheduled to take up the new citywide sign ordinance next Tuesday, April 19. This is a very significant meeting, because the committee will be discussing the ordinance for the first time since the City Planning Commission rejected several bad proposals previously made by the committee, as well as added some significant protections for communities fighting the blight of billboards.

Please send an e-mail to committee members urging passage of the ordinance as approved by the City Planning Commission, and if possible, plan to attend the PLUM committee meeting. This may be the last opportunity to make our voices heard in a public hearing before the ordinance goes to the full city council. And there will be heavy pressure to weaken the ordinance from industry lobbyists and others with a vested in interest in more outdoor advertising on our city streets. Click here for further details, contact information, and a sample letter.

Seven Years Later, Illegal Billboards Come Down

Left, illegal billboard on plumbers union property; right, after billboard removal

Left, illegal billboard on plumbers union property; right, after billboard removal

Seven years ago, just a few days before Christmas, a construction crew pulled up to a lot on the north side of the 110 freeway in downtown L.A. and proceeded to erect a 60 ft. high, double sided billboard. Less than 50 ft. from the freeway in the Staples Center/L.A. Live area, its two 700 sq. ft. faces would broadcast ads for such products as fast food, computers, and financial services to nearly 300,000 motorists every day.

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Disconnection? As L.A. Ponders Allowing Digital Billboards More Evidence Questions Their Safety

Clear Channel digital billboard on 210 freeway

Clear Channel digital billboard on 210 freeway

The billboard industry’s PR apparatus generates a number of questionable claims on behalf of digital billboards. They support local businesses, they advance non-profit causes, they provide critical emergency information, they help catch dangerous criminals and find missing children. But the most dubious may be that digital billboards are no more distracting than static signs and therefore pose no hazard to motorists on freeways and busy commercial streets.

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Thumbs Down: Court’s Reaction to Billboard Company’s Plan for New Digital Billboards in L.A.

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Digital billboard in West L.A. in 2010.  It has since been turned off.

A Louisiana billboard company’s hopes to put up new digital billboards in a wide area of Los Angeles appear to have run aground in the California Court of Appeals.

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Clear Channel’s L.A. Billboards: Ignoring Outdoor Advertising Industry Code of Principles

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The billboard with the tequila ad is less than 500 ft. from the preschool and the church.

Several months ago, we pointed out the fact that a Clear Channel billboard on Lincoln Blvd. in Venice violated an outdoor advertising industry code regarding the proximity of alcohol ads to schools and places of worship.  That ad for New Amsterdam vodka was recently removed, but what’s displayed now on that 52 ft. high, 624 sq. ft. sign?  An ad for Camarena tequila.

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Loosening the Purse Strings: Billboard Companies Spent Millions Lobbying L.A. Officials in 2015

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With the city’s legislative agenda containing such hot-button issues as allowing new digital billboards and granting amnesty to unpermitted and non-compliant signs, it’s little surprise that L.A. billboard companies spent almost $2.3 million last year lobbying council members and other city officials.

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