New L.A. Sign Ordinance: Commercial Advertising Could Trump Local Zoning Regulations

 

One face of a double-sided billboard on Lincoln Blvd. in Venice. Digital billboard in background, lower right.

Sign regulations in L.A. should “allow stakeholders to define their own space.” That’s what Ed Reyes, chairman of the City Council’s Planning and Land Use Management (PLUM) committee, said at a hearing last month on a new citywide sign ordinance. But did he really mean it?

Apparently yes, if those “stakeholders” are businesses and developers of large-scale commercial projects. But clearly no, if the stakeholders are homeowners or other individuals who have worked for special zoning regulations to protect and define the scale and character of their local communities.

Here’s just one example. Three years ago, the L.A. City Council unanimously approved a Community Design Overlay (CDO) District for Lincoln Blvd. in Venice, one of the most billboard-dense commercial streets in the city. The culmination of more than two years of community outreach and public hearings, that action established special regulations that include a prohibition of any new billboards or other forms of off-site signage.

CDO’s and other types of zoning overlays were intended as a departure from a one-size-fits-all zoning code by allowing special regulations tailored to individual neighborhoods and communities. But a provision in the new sign ordinance now in front of Reyes’ committee could exempt certain developments from those local regulations, including the off-site sign ban on Lincoln Blvd.

That provision allows commercial projects to develop unique signage regulations by applying for a “Comprehensive Sign Program.” By meeting a modest size requirement, ten per cent of the signs in a project could display off-site advertising, as long as the signs weren’t visible from the public right-of-way or adjacent property. For example, advertisements for fast food, liquor, movies, cars and many other products and services could be displayed in a shopping center parking lot as long as they were turned away from the street, or shielded by walls or vegetation.

But exposure to this advertising wouldn’t necessarily be limited to people on their way to shop. Since public property would also be eligible for comprehensive sign programs, the outdoor areas of city facilities could also be used to display ads, as long as they were oriented away from the street. And most alarmingly, large city parks with areas far from the street could become the site of ads tailored to families, children, and other park patrons.

And who are the “stakeholders” in those situations, the ones Reyes would allow to “define their own space?” Corporations with big ad budgets? People in the marketing business? People like Barry Sanders, the retired corporate lawyer now the head of the Recreation and Parks Commission and vocal advocate for allowing signs in parks? Or the people who actually use the parks?

Who are the “stakeholders” who should decide what signage comes to Lincoln Blvd. in Venice? The developers eyeing properties suitable for new commercial projects? The movie production companies and other corporate entitites that already peddle their products on the billboards that line the boulevard? Or the people in the community, both residents and small business owners, who took time to help develop a unified vision of the street?

Dennis Hathaway

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