Rewriting the L.A. Sign Code: Will the Public Be Left In the Cold?

Almost everyone agrees on the need to rewrite the city sign code.  One reason is that the code predates the digital age, and doesn’t adequately address electronic and video signage in matters such as light intensity and image-changing frequency, among others.  Another reason, and the one that has provided the major impetus for the rewriting effort, is that the code has proven susceptible to many legal challenges by sign companies.  By latest count, there are more than 25 lawsuits pending against the city, and the courts have ruled for the sign companies in several major cases, making enforcement of such things as the ban on off-site signs and supergraphic signs extremely difficult. 

The actual rewriting of the code is being done by the city planning department, with input and review by the city attorney’s office.  The billboard moratorium adopted by the City Council Dec. 12 ostensibly provided breathing space for this process, but the moratorium finally approved was for only three months, and the planning department has set a tentative date of Jan. 22 for presentation of the new ordinance to the City Planning Commission (CPC).

Why the rush?  At a November meeting of the council’s Planning and Land Use Management (PLUM) Committee, the city planner heading the effort estimated the time needed as 6-8 months.  Councilman Jack Weiss, a PLUM committee member, vociferously objected to this timetable, and argued for getting a revision ready for the CPC in January.  It’s surely no coincidence that Weiss is running for city attorney in the March, 2009, city election, and will inherit the various lawsuits challenging the current sign ordinance.

In arguing for a speeded-up process that will allow little public vetting in advance of hearings before the CPC, including consideration by neighborhood councils, Weiss asserted that people shouldn’t demand a “perfect” ordinance.  One could argue that the imperfections of the current ordinance are what got the city in trouble in the first place, and that it might behoove the city to take the time to try to write a “perfect” ordinance.   But a longer time-period obviously doesn’t jibe with political considerations.

Nevertheless, people should think about how the ordinance should address issues of visual blight, the takeover of the public space by corporate advertising, and the protection of neighborhoods from electronic billboards and other intrusive signage.  They should then e-mail their concerns and suggestions as soon as possible to Alan Bell, the city planner heading the revision team.  A copy should be also send to the deputy director of the planning department, Vincent Bertoni.  Their e-mail addresses are as follows.

Alan Bell  alan.bell@lacity.org
Vincent Bertoni  vince.bertoni@lacity.org.

To get the ball rolling, we’re including an excellent letter in the comments section below from a person whose position of employment requires anonymity.  Please consider posting a copy of any communications to the planning department as comments here.

Dennis Hathaway

3 Responses to “Rewriting the L.A. Sign Code: Will the Public Be Left In the Cold?”

  1. dennis says:

    The following comment is from a person whose position of employment requires anonymity:

    I think the key point to make is that the problem is not the citywide ban but the various exceptions that the City Council made to the ban, resulting in its inconsistent application to the different billboard companies, excessive discretion for the City and individual Councilpersons being able to pick and choose which billboard companies are allowed exceptions to the ban and which are stopped by it. This resulted in the Superior Court’s decision against the City and the injunction against enforcing the citywide ban granted in August.

    The Planning Department will be under pressure from the billboard companies and some development interests to repeal the ban and substitute “time, place and manner” regulations as to the location, size and height of billboards. This would be a defeat for billboard controls in Los Angeles. Pressure must be brought on the Planning Department as well as the City Council to enact revisions to the billboard ordinance to remove the exceptions, as follows:

    1. Repeal the supplemental sign district enabling ordinance, particularly now that a sign district in place in Hollywood, which was the main rationale for the enabling ordinance.

    2. Repeal the provision allowing specific plan ordinances to permit billboards.

    3. Discontinue the program in which advertisements are allowed on bus shelters and benches, if necessary to satisfy the Court’s August ruling in the lawsuit.

    4. The City Council should adopt a policy that it will not settle any future billboard company lawsuits on terms that are one sided in favor of the companies, i.e. no retroactive legalization of illegal signs put up without permits, no allowing of more companies to convert to digital billboards and no more reductions in sign inspection fees.

    5. Repeal any other exceptions to the Citywide ban that have been established. In addition to eliminating the exceptions, the revised billboard ordinance should prohibit any further conversions to digital billboards and try to renegotiate the settlement agreements which allow the four major companies to convert over 800 of their signs to digital displays. And the revised billboard ordinance should either ban supergraphics signs on the sides of buildings or greatly reduce their size as a percentage of the area of the side of a building and allow only one sign per building.

  2. Rafael O. Quezada says:

    I’m an artist who lives in Hollywood. I’m of the opinion that visual artists, long the unintended victims of this ongoing billboard debate, have stood silent and have been strangely absent from this important dialog for far too long.

    I’ve proposed an ARTWALL project to the CRA, for the façades of the Arclight Cinemas parking structure. This is a CRA-owned building. It is located in the Hollywood sign district, at 1400 N. Ivar. The building fills the block between Vine St. and N. Ivar, its east-west borders; with De Longpre on its south and its north side adjacent and attached to the old Cinerama property, now known as the Arclight Cinemas development.

    ARTWALL is proposed as an improvement for the building, whose utilitarian purpose results in a hugely oppressive presence that is essentially a flat-face block of concrete 425 ft. wide (east-west), 80 ft. high, and 250 ft. deep (south-north). Visually, it is hardly more than a slab. It’s an example of the architecture that results when automobiles are placed at the top of priority lists; as planning requires developers to include space to store cars instead of requiring developers to contribute to the improvement of public transit systems that might lessen automobile traffic and congestion.

    To soften the building, I’ve proposed a set of picture frames for display of modern art prints, digital photographs, and enlarged film-still photographs. These frames off-set the flat rectilinear shape of the structure, echoing and enhancing the parsimoniously, if not halfheartedly, designed pipe-frame device that presently supports a steel mesh screen intended to hide the ugly open slots of the seven-level auto-lot. At night, the steel mesh is ineffective. Through the darkness, the neighborhood is given the bleak view of fluorescent-tube light fixtures and flashing headlights as cars idle in procession down the parking structure’s ramps.

    The building sits on the northern edge of what will be the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Science’s new “Academy Museum of Motion Pictures”. The museum coordinator, Heather Cochran, agrees it’s a problem as it stands.

    Part of the resistance I’m getting to my proposal results from CRA’s hesitancy; a direct outgrowth of the billboard debate which, if I’m not mistaken, has to do with the justified objection to the crass commercialism, built on outrageous and prurient spectacle, that has become the hallmark of advertising in the early 21st century.

    Somehow, the debate over billboard blight has to be prevented from being used by bureaucrats as a convenient way to reject genuine artistic expression. The two can’t be lumped together and it’s the responsibility of artists to make themselves heard. Until then, murals and other public art projects will continue to meet resistance from appointed officials afraid to distinguish between the two.

    I feel the solution to the problem of billboard blight is caused by artists failing to be heard on the issue. In fact, there are new digital technologies that represent a potential solution to the conflict between neighborhoods tired of being assaulted by aggressive messaging and the corporations who tie their success to the ability to most effectively assault the public’s senses. If all that makes art worthy could be applied, instead; if through an aesthetic melding of composition, form, light, and color a new way could be devised to tone down and/or re-intermediate the commercial messaging, then all of us would be the better, one day hopefully unified.

    For divided we fall and together we stand.

    I welcome any comment.

    Rafael O. Quezada

  3. The Majority says:

    Stop playing the lobbyist. Let the citizens of LA decide. Put it to a vote by the city. Whatever the majority decides is best becomes the law.

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.