Proposed City Sign Ordinance: Bold New Beginning, or Surrendering More of the Visual Environment to Advertising?
L. A. Councilman Tom LaBonge quoted those lyrics at a recent city council meeting, addressing the growing public concern that sign companies and their clients are intent upon filling every available outdoor space with advertising, bringing closer to reality a future as depicted in such movies as “Blade Runner” and “Minority Report,” where large, bright, insistent sales pitches surround people wherever they go.
The current city sign ordinance has been ineffectual in slowing this march toward what many people consider a dystopian future. The newly-revised version of that ordinance purports to reverse that trend, and to begin treating the city’s visual landscape as a public resource with architectural and other civic values, rather than as simply a canvas for ads. A commendable goal, but how will it work in a world where the preservation and use of public resources so often collides with economic and political realities?
First, some good news. The new proposed ordinance would:
- Significantly reduce the amount of signage of all kinds allowed, by setting much lower limits on such things as square footage and height. For example, a pole sign could be no more than 20 ft. high, with a face of no more than 80 sq. ft., which effectively bans any new billboards of the conventional type that we’re used to seeing cluttering the view as we walk and drive the streets.
- Essentially ban the large “supergraphic” ads that are draped over or otherwise attached to entire walls of buildings, both because of the size limit that applies to all types of signs, and a prohibition on covering windows, doors or other openings.
- Ban digital signs. No new brightly-lit billboards with their changing ads would be allowed. No video signs, or the electronic scrolling signs that have been appearing with greater frequency. Nothing but conventional signs, and even those would fall under a stricter limit of illumination, to avoid excessive brightness.
All good? The city planning department certainly deserves credit for putting together a document that seriously addresses public concerns about the threats to the city’s visual environment, but there are two important reasons to temper any displays of enthusiasm.
One, the proposed ordinance removes any distinction between on-site and off-site advertising. The off-site sign ban in the current ordinance would be consigned to the trash, and every advertising sign in the city would be subject to the same regulations regardless of its content. In other words, your corner dry cleaners could have a sign advertising burgers or cellphones, as long as it met size and placement restrictions.
The planning department’s reasoning, with obvious input from the city attorney’s office, is that this will make the ordinance easier to enforce. An inspector need only measure the height and size of the sign and where it’s placed to determine if it complies, without having to worry about whether the goods or services it advertises are actually sold on the site. While this may not seem like a big problem, it apparently has caused some difficulties in the past.
More significantly, the city has run into legal problems by allowing exceptions to the current off-site sign ban, and in fact these exceptions have been cited in a court ruling barring the city from prosecuting sign companies that have been putting up those enormous supergraphic ads in violation of the code. But if the new code doesn’t ban off-site signs, that issue will ostensibly be rendered moot, although whether or not it would result in the removal of signs already up would remain to be seen.
The second reason to hold the applause just now is that the new ordinance would still allow the establishment of sign districts, geographic areas with their own unique sign regulations, which could allow digital signs, supergraphic signs, and signs higher, wider, and brighter than those allowed otherwise. Current sign districts have been at least partially responsible for the runaway proliferation of advertising signage in Hollywood, and have brought us such outrages as the digital billboards in the MTA bus lot alongside the 10 freeway downtown.
To their credit, city planners have tightened up the criteria for establishing sign districts in the proposed ordinance. Sign districts would only be allowed in areas designated by community plans as “Regional Center” or “Regional Commercial,” rather than on any commercially or industrially zoned properties. The minimum area for a sign district would be increased to the equivalent of 4-6 square blocks, and a finding would have to be made that the area had unique cultural, historic, or entertainment-related qualities that would benefit from special sign regulations. Without such a finding, a sign district could be established only if it instituted a program to permanently remove 50 per cent of the total square footage of signage, excluding any that was unlawfully erected.
Doesn’t sound too bad? Consider the fact that in the Hollywood sign district a large mixed-use development was granted the right by the area planning commission to erect 23,000 sq. ft. of signage in lieu of the 7,800 sq. ft. allowed by the special sign district regulations. Consider the fact that the city council overruled a unanimous decision by the City Planning Commission that the sign district established on the MTA bus lot did not meet a single one of the legal criteria for establishing such districts. Consider the fact that city councilpersons have proposed sign districts for areas that have no unique qualities but would allow deep-pocketed, politically-connected developers to reap the considerable revenue from off-site advertising signs.
If political discretion is used sparingly and wisely, we can have some faith in our city’s future. If that discretion is used to reward influential special interests, we will continue to see the visual environment degraded to the point where our city will be a less desirable place to live, and by extension, a less desirable place to do business. The only way the new regulations can assure the former is to eliminate the possibility of granting variances and exceptions through such mechanisms as sign districts. Many of our neighboring cities—Santa Monica, Culver City, Pasadena, to name a few–have seen the logic of this, and have instituted absolute off-site sign bans, for example.
Why can’t we do the same in L.A? The City Planning Commission will be taking up the draft sign ordinance at its next meeting, Jan. 22, and it will be a good time and place to ask that question.
To read the text of the ordinance and supporting material, go to the city planning dept. website and click on Plans & Ordinances/Proposed OrdinancesDennis Hathaway