In a 1974 earthquake, a 20-story tower at the corner of Sunset and Vine in Hollywood collapsed into a pile of rubble. On film, that is, in the disaster movie, “Earthquake.”
But the office building suffered a real disaster in 2001, when an electrical fire rendered it uninhabitable. It stood vacant until two years ago, when it was extensively renovated into a mixed-use condominium and retail project.
As part of this renovation, the building was stripped to its steel skeleton and given a new “skin” that included frames on all four sides for 10 story-high, 5,000 sq. ft. billboards. Technically called “supergraphic” signs, these brightly-lit advertisements for movies, TV shows and products like premium whisky dominate the visual landscape of that intersection and surrounding area.
Someone with only a passing knowledge of billboard regulation in L.A. might reasonably ask how these signs were legally permitted, given that the city adopted a ban on new billboards in 2002. The short answer is that the city made an exception for signs erected in selected areas designated as signage supplemental use districts, an exception that has proved to be giant loophole allowing our public spaces to be invaded by ever more bold and intrusive forms of commercial advertising.
The Hollywood Signage Supplemental Use District, which encompasses a large swath of that community, was adopted in 2004. One of the stated purposes of the district was to “reflect a modern, vibrant image of Hollywood as the global center of the entertainment industry;” another was to “limit visual clutter by regulating the number, size and location of signs.” Perhaps there is an inherent conflict in those intentions, but if a vibrant image of Hollywood is projected by huge, flashy advertisements incorporated into such buildings as the Sunset and Vine tower, and the tens of thousands of square feet of advertising signs either installed or proposed as part of new developments, it’s clear which intention has carried the day.
A few blocks away, an entire block at the iconic corner of Hollywood and Vine is being turned into a hotel, condominium and retail project that will have 23,000 square feet of supergraphic signs and rooftop billboards.
On Hollywood Blvd. near Graumann’s Chinese theater the restoration of an historic building is to include a 5,000 sq. ft. roof sign that is taller than the building itself. A block north, on Highland Ave., an office building undergoing renovation includes three supergraphic signs totaling more than 6,000 sq. ft., and the recently approved mixed-use project at old Spaghetti Factory site on Sunset Blvd. will have two supergraphic signs of more than 3,000 sq. ft. That’s a total of 57,000 square feet of off-site advertising signs in just five projects, or the equivalent of 84 full-size billboards.
The signage district provided the legal path for this onslaught, but the real enablers have been two city bodies, the Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA) and the Central Area Planning Commission (CAPC). The CRA has encouraged developers who claim they need the revenue from advertisers to make their projects financially feasible, even though that argument becomes a little curious when one considers that CIM Group, the developer of four of the above five projects, has worked extensively in Santa Monica, a city that has an absolute ban on billboards and other forms of outdoor advertising.
The Hollywood Signage Supplemental Use District includes specific regulations concerning the number, size, and location of signs, but the CAPC has regularly sided with developers who propose signs that go far beyond these limits. For example, the sign district regulations would have limited the supergraphic signs on the Sunset and Vine tower to a total of two, and required that they not be visible at the same time from a single location. The CAPC approved a doubling of the number of signs on the grounds that no two signs would be visible at the same time, which is completely false, as is clear from the preceding photograph.
The CAPC, whose president is Young Kim, a Koreatown attorney appointed by former Mayor James Hahn and who was fined for making an illegal contribution to Hahn’s campaign, has overruled city planners who have said that sign regulation exceptions sought by developers do not meet the criteria set forth in the city charter for granting such exceptions. For example, a city planner found that the 5,000 square foot roof sign proposed for a building to undergo renovation at 6904 Hollywood Blvd. would violate multiple provisions of the Hollywood sign district, but that decision was unanimously overruled by the CPAC. Although the city charter doesn’t include economic hardship or feasibility as grounds for granting variances or exceptions to city zoning and planning regulations, the CPAC has repeatedly cited a project’s need for revenue from off-site advertising as a reason why limits on size and number of signs should be greatly exceeded.
The Hollywood Signage Supplemental Use District is one of only two adopted in the city, but the fact that eleven more are pending in various stages of the approval process makes the huge proliferation of advertising signage in Hollywood a cautionary tale for other areas of the city. Do people want to create a replica of Times Square in Koreatown, at the Mid-City Crossings area, on the north side of the 110 freeway downtown? These are just three of the proposed sign districts, but each time one is approved there will certainly be more pressure to approve the next.
In 2002, the people of the city spoke through their city council representatives who approved the ban on new off-site advertising signs and put in place a program to find and remove illegal signs. The statement inherent in those actions would seem to be that the people of the city wanted less advertising filling their outdoor vistas, not more. Former Councilwoman Cindy Miscikowski, who was at the forefront of that effort, called the inclusion of sign districts a mechanism by which people could get a reduction in the number of billboards in their communities. She was carrying on the tradition of her former boss and long-time councilman Marvin Braude, who was a staunch defender of the city’s visual environment against the relentless inroads of the sign companies. If he was alive today and saw what was happening in Hollywood, he’d surely be turning over in his graveDennis Hathaway