To some Los Angeles politicians, digital billboards–or “electronic message centers” in popular ad industry and government parlance–are potential ATM’s filled with ready cash to pay for a variety of city services.
But to many citizens, especially those in neighborhoods populated by one or more of the 99 digital billboards that operated in the city before being plunged into court-ordered darkness, they are an electronic nightmare, flashing ads for products and services day and night to motorists, pedestrians, and even some residents who had to resort to such measures as blackout curtains to keep the brightly-lit intrusions out of their homes.
Is this divergence as wide as it looks, or is there middle ground where everyone–or most everyone–can be satisfied? The question is likely to be asked, if not necessarily answered to the satisfaction of all concerned, in the coming months. That’s because the City Planning Dept. has issued a report on digital billboards that sets forth three options for the City Council to consider in allowing these signs currently prohibited by city code.
Before delving into details of the report, a quick refresher may be in order. The city banned new billboards and modifications to existing billboards back in 2002. That ban included certain exceptions, however, and in the ensuing decade the city was forced to fight a barrage of sign company lawsuits claiming the exceptions rendered the ban unconstitutional. Those legal battles ended when a federal appeals court ruled that the city could legally allow new billboards in special sign districts and still keep the general ban in place, as long as certain conditions were met.
Even before that court decision, the city had begun to rewrite the citywide sign ordinance to make it more legally defensible. After almost five years and more than a dozen public hearings, that ordinance is now in final form, with the City Council’s Planning Committee expected to vote on it early next month.
The ordinance restricts new off-site signs, including digitals, to sign districts. The ordinance further restricts sign districts to areas of the city zoned “regional center” or regional commercial,” which are high-intensity commercial developments either in existence or part of future plans. There are 21 of these areas in the city’s General Plan, including downtown, Universal City, Century City, and parts of Westwood, Koreatown, and Wilshire Blvd.’s Miracle Mile. [For a full list of those areas, click here. For maps showing the area boundaries, click here.]
Now back to the digital billboard report. One of the three options is limiting new digital billboards to sign districts, which is what the new sign ordinance does. The second option is to allow new digital billboards only on city-owned property, and the third option is to allow the signs on both public and private property. All three options would require billboard companies to take down some of the conventional billboards in their inventory, and provide some community benefits like sidewalk widening, undergrounding of utilities and other streetscape improvements. The second and third options also envision the billboard companies sharing some revenue with the city.
To illustrate these potential benefits, the report summarizes deals that cities such as Chicago, Miami, and Sacramento have made with billboard companies to allow new digital billboards, most often on public property along interstate highways and expressways.
Any equation connecting digital billboards with benefits to Los Angeles, monetary or otherwise, contains two big unknowns. One is the ultimate fate of the 99 billboards that were converted to digital as part of a lawsuit settlement between the city and Clear Channel and CBS Outdoor. As everyone with an interest in billboard issues knows, that settlement was thrown out by the courts and a “pull the plug” order was issued last April by L.A. Superior Court Judge Terry Green. Clear Channel, the owner of 84 of those billboards, mounted a big–and continuing–PR and lobbying effort to get public support for some kind of action by the city that would allow those moribund signs to be turned back on.
Clear Channel has been dangling the promise of revenue in return for such a lucrative favor. In the meantime, Judge Green has been hearing arguments that those billboards should be completely torn down, which would ostensibly end the possibility of them being turned back on. A ruling is expected after a second hearing on the question next month.
The second big unknown is legal. The city’s 2002 ban on new billboards is apparently safe as long as digital billboards are confined to a limited number of sign districts and the removal of existing billboards and community benefits are in line with the court’s ruling that exceptions to the ban serve the purpose of reducing blight, enhancing aesthetics, and improving traffic safety. But what if the city starts letting new digital billboards go up on city-owned property? Or on private property outside of sign districts?
The Planning Dept. report released last Thursday has this to say: “The Office of the City Attorney has advised that there are important legal considerations that should be taken into account, in regard to the three options outlined above. They will be submitting a confidential report to PLUM and the City Council shortly on this matter.” Note: The Planning and Land Use Management (PLUM) committee is now called the Planning committee.
The idea of the city allowing new digital billboards in exchange for revenue and other benefits has been floating around City Hall for several years. Clear Channel and CBS Outdoor have lobbied for that sort of deal, and Lamar Advertising offered to take down some 3,000 of its small, conventional signs in return for permission to put up full-sized digital billboards. (The company recently sued the city to force it to issue permits for 45 new digitial signs)
Last fall, City Councilman Paul Krekorian introduced a motion to start the process of putting together a digital billboard deal, but it was effectively scuttled by negative publicity, including an L.A. Times article revealing that the motion had been produced by a Clear Channel lobbyist. The City Council then directed the Planning Dept. to set up a public “Visioning” group to come up with ideas and hopefully reach some consensus as to how and where to allow new digital billboards.
That group, with representatives from billboard companies, business groups, and a variety of community organizations, held three meetings led by professional facilitators. The result was hardly unpredictable. Most billboard companies and business interests saw great benefits both to the city and to the community at large by allowing new digital billboards, while the majority of community groups didn’t care for the idea of letting these signs outside the confines of designated sign districts where they could be strictly regulated and kept a safe distance from residential neighborhoods.
The new Planning Dept. report recommends that the Visioning group, in which discussion became acrimonious a few times, be reconvened to study Options 2 and 3, allowing digital billboards on public property or on a combination of public and private property. It isn’t clear how it might reach the highly elusive consensus that was its original mission.
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