Does the left hand of Los Angeles city government know what the right hand is doing? Does it care? This week, a city council committee approved an agreement allowing massive electronic signage on the L.A. Convention Center, the city owned-facility that sits at the confluence of the Santa Monica and Harbor Freeways downtown.
Next week, another committee is scheduled to take up a motion to rewrite the city’s sign ordinance, an effort prompted in large part by the fact that the city has granted so many exceptions to the current ordinance allowing signs like those proposed for the convention center that it has badly undermined its ability to enforce restrictions on outdoor advertising anywhere in the city.
Janice Hahn, chairperson of the Trade, Commerce, and Tourism Committee that approved the signage, spun the deal as a “creative” way to raise revenue for the city, at least $2 million a year over the next decade. Unfortunately, we’ve seen what selling the rights to advertise on public buildings and in public spaces leads to—the “Street Furniture” program that gives one company exclusive rights to advertise on bus shelters and kiosks throughout the city was the basis for a federal court decision holding that the city cannot ban similar signage on private property. And in another court decision, a judge cited the city’s granting to Clear Channel the right to put digital billboards alongside the freeway less than a mile east of the convention center as a reason why it couldn’t legally ban billboards and supergraphic signs put up by other companies.
In response to those court decisions that threaten to render the city’s 2002 ban on new off-site advertising signs meaningless, five council members introduced a motion to revise the sign ordinance so that it will pass constitutional muster. Without laying out any actual details, the motion calls for the planning department, in consultation with the city attorney and building department, to “toughen and create easily enforceable time /place/ manner restrictions citywide to protect neighborhoods. The revised ordinances also must provide clear criteria related to land use designations for sign districts.”
Hahn’s push for digital signs on the convention center could well give the litigious outdoor advertising industry more ammunition for their legal claims. If logic were to prevail, the city would immediately declare a moratorium on any discretionary approvals of signage and special sign districts until the revised sign ordinance is in place. But don’t expect that to happen. Hahn’s committee’s action gives the right to put up the digital signs on the convention center to AEG, the company headed by billionaire Philip Anschutz that also owns the Staples Center. In just the first six months of this year, that firm paid $120,000 to firms lobbying the city on its behalf, according to Ethics Commission reports.
It’s no wonder that Hahn brought the proposal to her committee with a minimum of public fanfare, given this fact, as well as the likelihood that a true public vetting of something that will affect people all over the city who drive the freeways would likely have aroused inconvenient public opposition.