Ralph Becker, Antonio Villaraigosa, Paris Hilton, and L.A.’s Digital Billboard Disaster

Left, CBS Outdoor digital billboard that has generated many complaints; right, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, with Paris Hilton and CBS president Leslie Moonves, far right

We all know that Antonio Villaraigosa is L.A.’s mayor, and Paris Hilton has about the same name recognition as Jesus Christ and Gandhi. But who the heck is Ralph Becker? Well, he’s the mayor of Salt Lake City, Utah, and if you’re willing to spend seven minutes listening to the following audio clip, you’ll understand why his name leads off this article’s headline, and why what he has to say in this radio interview is highly germane to billboard and signage issues in L.A.

Salt Lake City Mayor Speaks About Digital Billboards

So Becker thinks his city’s scenic qualities are very important, and that strict regulations should be put in place for digital signs and billboards. Contrast that with our mayor, who was consorting with celebrities and important people while the city council approved a backroom deal allowing CBS Outdoor and Clear Channel to convert 840 of their billboards to digital just by walking into the building department and asking for a permit. No special regulations, no public review, not even any notification to surrounding property owners.

What followed was entirely predictable, had any council member bothered to ask questions about this deal put together by a city attorney who likely owed his election to the largesse of the very companies that stood to handsomely profit from it. The billboards showed up on the city’s busiest streets, two and three at a single intersection, raising concerns about driver distraction and the safety of motorists and pedestrians. The billboards cropped up on the edge of residential neighborhoods, casting their bright, rapidly changing light into people’s homes and apartments.

At the same time, multi-story vinyl and fabric supergraphic signs started spreading through the city, dominating the view with ads for liquor, fast food, automobiles, and movies and TV shows. The signs on office buildings often covered windows, clouding the view from inside and raising concerns that they could impede firefighters in the event of a fire. Many of the signs were on buildings practically on top of freeways traveled by hundreds of thousands of vehicles every day.

When a federal judge ruled in the summer of 2008 that the city’s ban on those signs was unconstitutional because it allowed too many exceptions, it appeared that the city’s landscape was about to become awash in advertising, with hundreds more digital billboards, and an untold number of supergraphic signs and other types that marketers had yet to dream up. The City Planning Commission began discussing a moratorium on any new signs, including digital billboard conversions, and just after Thanksgiving the City Council voted for a 90-day ban, despite the vocal opposition of lobbyists and some business leaders, including CBS president Leslie Moonves.

Admist the roil of debate, what did mayor Villaraigosa have to say, pro or con? Absolutely nothing. In fact, to date there hasn’t been a single public comment from him or any member of his staff about signage issues, despite the fact that in the past two years the City Planning Commission approved a significantly revised sign ordinance, a ban on previously legal supergraphic signs in Hollywood was adopted, and a downtown project with almost 300,000 square ft. of electronic signage with 30,000 sq.ft. of commercial advertising was debated in an overflowing city council chambers.

This glaring indifference, or whatever it is, stands in stark contrast to mayor Becker, who may not be able to prevail against the lobbyists he talks about in the interview, but appears to understand that a visual environment crowded with electronic signs and other forms of advertising degrades the quality of life of a city’s people, and should be vocally resisted despite the political consequences.

Dennis Hathaway

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