[Update: Voters soundly defeated the intiative, with 55% voting no.]
On Nov. 3, voters in San Francisco will cast their ballots on an initiative to allow digital billboards on a seedy stretch of Market St. Promoters say the measure will help revitalize the area; opponents say the billboards, up to 500 sq. ft. in size, will visually blight the street and actually hinder redevelopment.
In 2002, the same year the Los Angeles City Council adopted a ban on new off-site signs, San Francisco residents did the same thing, through a ballot initiative that passed with 79% of the vote. The difference? The Los Angeles measure allowed exceptions that have led to a huge proliferation of both legal and illegal signs; the San Francisco measure was absolute, and there was no legal way to put up any new billboards or other types of off-site advertising signs.
The new measure, Proposition D, would begin to undo that absolute ban by establishing a sign district on a two-block section of Market St. and allow digital billboards that promoters of the measure see as an impetus for creating a Times Square-style theater and entertainment district. Given that San Francisco is widely considered one of the most beautiful cities in the world, and that protection of scenic vistas and views of the bay would seem of great importance, the idea of sticking brilliantly lighted, rapidly changing advertising signs in the middle of it appears highly questionable.
But even if it weren’t, are San Francisco voters aware of the Pandora’s box they could be opening? Do they care to look at the L.A. experience? The Hollywood sign district, established five years ago, has helped turn the visual landscape of that community into a sea of signs advertising such things as movies, TV shows, liquor, cars, and women’s clothing. Even worse, sign companies have successfully used the sign district provision to attack the constitutionality of the 2002 sign ban, and have been allowed to put up multi-story supergraphic signs that would otherwise be illegal on buildings in more than fifty locations from downtown to West L.A. to the San Fernando Valley.
If you have friends in San Francisco who believe that allowing digital billboards is a reasonable price to pay for upgrading a rundown commercial neighborhood, you might want to tell them: Be careful what you wish for.
For more about Proposition D, read the following articles: