Supergraphic Signs: Carmen Trutanich, the Code of Hammurabi, and Excessive Bail

Detail of bolts and cable holding supergraphic sign on Hollywood Blvd. building. City Attorney Carmen Trutanich said the 8-story sign could pose a hazard to people on the street below.

The highly-charged debate about the $1 million bail set for a man accused of allowing an illegal supergraphic sign on his Hollywood Blvd. building brings to mind the 2,500-year old Code of Hammurabi, which prescribed a penalty of death for any builder who put up a house that fell down and killed its owner.  This is thought to be the beginning of building codes, and the modern system of permits and inspectors that embodies the idea that people should not have to rely on builders and property owners to assure them that the structures they live and work in and pass by in the streets won’t cave in on their heads or easily burst into flames.

Despite this well established principle of standards enforced by disinterested parties, the attorney for Kayvan Setareh, the property owner who spent three days in custody after being arrested for allowing the unpermitted, uninspected 8-story sign to go up on his building, disputed City Attorney Carmen Trutanich’s claim that the sign was a potential hazard to the safety of pedestrians and motorists in the busy intersection below, and to people occupying the building.

The attorney, Andrew Stein, didn’t elaborate on his qualifications to make such a statement, and the continuing debate about whether the $1 million bail was excessive has mostly drowned out any discussion of the potential hazards posed by the sign.    However,  the issue of safety regarding these huge signs either hung from buildings with bolts and cables or attached with an adhesive has been the subject of extensive testimony in the many lawsuits brought against the city the past few years by companies challenging the city’s right to ban the supergraphic signs.

Shadows of windows can be seen behind supergraphic sign on Hollywood Blvd.

U.S. District Judge Audrey Collins, who has presided over a dozen or more of those lawsuits, and ostensibly read hundreds of pages of testimony and documents, reached a very different conclusion from Stein.  Speaking of signs covering windows, as does the one on Hollywood Blvd., Collins cited testimony from a city fire captain who said that “obstructing a window in any way creates an imminent life safety hazard.”  She then concludes, logically,  that “it is hard for this court to imagine any sign over a window that is not a life safety threat.”

Two years ago, then-City Councilman Jack Weiss introduced a motion directing the  Fire Department to make a sweep of the city to inspect all supergraphic signs and determine whether or not they posed safety hazards.  At a news conference held on Wilshire Blvd. with a giant supergraphic in the background, Weiss said, “Many of the supergraphic signs in Los Angeles could pose public safety and life threatening hazards. Supergraphics can block the openings of windows, restrict roof access, and prevent ingress and egress of both firefighters and tenants. Moreover, supergraphics can be made of flammable or combustible materials, and may not be safely affixed to sides of buildings, posing serious threats to pedestrians below.”

Fire department officials at that news conference affirmed Weiss’s concerns, and responded to a billboard lobbyist’s statement elsewhere that firefighters could easily cut through the fabric of a sign if they needed to get to a window.  The official said that even one or two minutes spent that way could mean life or death for a person inside a burning building.  He also said that it’s  important for heat and smoke to be able to escape a burning building, and a supergraphic could seriously hamper firefighting efforts by impeding that escape.

Weiss, who was then running for City Attorney against Trutanich, was accused in some quarters of using the issue for political gain.  But for whatever reason, his motion was never  brought before the City Council.

City code also requires any material draped or hung on a building to be made of a fireproof material approved by the State Fire Marshal.  Since almost all the hundred or more supergraphic signs around the city were put up without permits or inspections, it is impossible to know whether they comply with this requirement.

As for the question of how securely these signs are attached, the city and its citizens have only the word of attorneys like Stein who have claimed in public or in court documents that there is no danger of detachment and threat to pedestrians and motorists in the street.

However, as pointed out in our previous article, a giant supergraphic sign put up on a building at Sunset & Vine by a company called Skytag did come loose and shred in gusts of winds three years ago.

Supergraphic at Pico & Overland in West L.A.

In West L.A. last year, a inflated supergraphic for McDonald’s “McCafe coffee bulged and billowed so noticeably that nearby residents were alarmed, and city inspectors cited the sign company for failure to seek approval of the method of attachment.  In that case, residents also complained that the sign installer put up no barricades on the sidewalk even though persons were working for hours several stories above.

The supergraphic sign installed on the First National Bank Building at 6777 Hollywood Blvd. is attached with cables and eyebolts drilled into the walls.   Because no permits were applied for, and no inspections carried out, one is left to guess how deeply the bolts are embedded, or what the rated strength of the cable is, or if the stone used to cover the walls of the 1928 building has the structural integrity to hold the bolts under extreme conditions, such as a high wind.

That intersection is one of the busiest in Hollywood, with thousands upon thousands pedestrians and motorists passing every day.  Any potential danger to their safety is a very serious matter, and hopefully, some of those rushing to accuse the City Attorney of acting like a bully or trampling on a citizen’s constitutional rights or grossly overreacting to a misdemeanor will pause a moment to consider the very real issue of public safety at the heart of this matter.

Dennis Hathaway

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