Turning Freeways Over To Advertising: The Convention Center Signage Proposal

Freeway-Before & After

Will this.......................................Become This?

On July 9, the L.A. City Planning Commission will be asked to approve more than 50,000 square feet of advertising signage on the L.A. Convention Center, almost half of it on the long façade that directly faces the confluence of the Harbor and Santa Monica freeways, one of the busiest and most complex freeway intersections in the city.

According to the city planning department’s report, the 19 signs—essentially billboards– that will face the freeways do not constitute a potential traffic hazard because all will be static, without any changing images.  The original proposal by AEG, the owner of Staples Center and L.A. Live which was given signage rights to the convention center more than ten years ago, included digital billboards on the section of the façade closest to the freeway interchange.

The report cites no statistics, studies, or reports to indicate that the billboards would not be a potential distraction to drivers simply because of being non-digital.  The report makes no mention of the fact that the current city sign code prohibits signs within 2,000 ft. of a freeway if they are deemed to be “primarily viewable” from the roadway or an exit ramp.  At a May public hearing, the planning department was given a reference to the latest independent study showing that all billboards, not just digital, were potential traffic safety hazards, but it makes no mention of this, either.

The study, commissioned by the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials, stated, “Most of the research reviewed for this report studied driver distraction and other safety-related measures with real-world or simulated conventional billboards, and many of these studies (as have studies going back decades) identified safety concerns.”

On the issue of the aesthetics raised by an array of billboards on the convention center’s long, curving facade, the planning department concludes the following:   “…the Project is proposed for a particular area wherein comprehensive signage regulations have been consistency (sic) implemented with a high level of success.  Directly north and east of the Project Area, the Los Angeles Sports and Entertainment District Specific Plan currently allows various sign types that are normally prohibited Citywide.  The Specific Plan provisions have allowed for the construction of a central plaza located in the LA Live development that is adorned with bold and dynamic signage which activates that space, and creates an environment that is stimulating and exciting to passers by and to visitors.  Other sign types throughout the Specific Plan area, including supergraphic signs, facilitate a unique sense of place, and allow for the branding and promotion of events and activities at the various venues within the district.”

One might be excused for thinking that paragraph was written by a public relations person, not a independent-thinking city planner.  And there is obviously not unanimous agreement that the signage in the LA Live and Staples Center area is “stimulating and exciting” and creates a “unique sense of place.”  But more important is the fact that the billboards on the convention center façade have no relationship to LA Live or Staples Center or other areas in the downtown sports and entertainment district.  The billboards are at the very perimeter of that district, and face away from it, toward the freeways.  They are obviously intended to sell products and services to motorists on the freeway, not to the pedestrians and others on the adjacent streets and plazas.

Another serious issue the planning department doesn’t—and perhaps couldn’t—address is one of legal precedent.  Lawsuits now pending against the city by sign companies have cited the fact that the city has permitted advertising signs visible from the freeway in that area, and claim that the city cannot constitutionally prohibit other companies from putting up freeway-adjacent billboards and other signs.  For example, four full-size billboards were put up nearby on the north side of the Harbor freeway without any permits, but the company has sued the city and won a temporary stay of enforcement against those signs.

Last year’s approval of four billboard faces—two of them digital—alongside the 10 freeway just south of the convention center as part of a complicated deal to acquire land for a South L.A. park has also been cited in sign company lawsuits as a reason why the city should be enjoined from enforcing its ban on freeway-adjacent signs.

Back in 2002, the City Council rejected a proposal put forward by then-councilman Mark Ridley-Thomas to allow billboard companies to put up one billboard in freeway-adjacent industrial areas for every 10 billboards removed along city streets.  Instead, the council adopted a ban on any new off-site signs and instituted a program to inventory all billboards and identify those put up or modified illegally.

Now the city is being asked to okay almost 24,000 sq. ft. of signage on the convention center façade facing the freeways, or the equivalent of 35 full-size billboards.  Under the formula in the plan rejected by the City Council in 2002, putting up those billboards would have required the takedown of 350 billboards elsewhere in the community.

The deal brokered in private with AEG will provide the city revenue in exchange for those freeway-facing signs, although no strings are attached to determine how that revenue is spent.  In the meantime, freeway drivers are likely to see more and more billboards on their daily commutes, and local communities will continue to be blighted with an excess of outdoor advertising.

To read more about the convention center billboard plan, click here and scroll down to see all articles on the issue.

Dennis Hathaway

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