Wilshire Grand Sign District: Or, How to Diss the City Attorney (and Game the System)

Some of the signage proposed for Wilshire Grand project. (Photoshop approximation by Curbed LA)

Was the City Attorney’s office deliberately excluded from discussions between L.A. city planners and the developer of the new Wilshire Grand project downtown regarding the establishment of a sign district that would legally allow sign types prohibited by ordinance citywide?  At last week’s City Planning Commission meeting where the sign district was approved, a project lobbyist said that developers had been discussing the signage with planners for more than a year, while a representative of the City Attorney’s office said the signage details had been provided to his office less than a week before the meeting.

If true, this stands in stark contrast to the establishment of a sign district alongside the 10 freeway in 2008 to allow Clear Channel to erect two double-faced billboards.  In public meetings leading up to City Council approval of that controversial sign district, Councilwoman Jan Perry answered concerns about the potential legal problems that could arise by saying the proposal had been thoroughly vetted and given a stamp of approval by the City Attorney’s office.

Of course, that City Attorney was Rocky Delgadillo, whose questionable activities including schmoozing with billboard company lobbyists, while current City Attorney Carmen Trutanich has aggressively defended the city against sign company lawsuits,  most of which have featured claims that the city is undermining its own sign regulations by approval of sign districts such as the one proposed for the $1 billion Wilshire Grand development.

Chief Deputy City Attorney William Carter

At the beginning of last week’s City Planning Commission meeting, chief deputy City Attorney William Carter asked that action be delayed so that attorneys in the office could study the signage details to make certain they didn’t run afoul of the recent ruling of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, which said the city could constitutionally grant exceptions to citywide bans on new off-site and supergraphic signs, but only if those exceptions resulted in a reduction of visual  blight or enhanced traffic safety.

Commission president Bill Roschen asked the developer’s representative, Mitch Menzer, to agree to delay consideration of the sign district portion of the project entitlements until Jan. 27, saying he wanted commissioners to act with “full information.”  Menzer refused the request, saying that any delay in full approval of the mixed-use retail, hotel, and office development was “unacceptable.”  Roschen, who appeared disturbed by the refusal, repeated his request later in the meeting, but Menzer stood firm.

The commission couldn’t force a delay in the proposal that includes thousands of square ft. of electronic advertising signage, some of which would be freeway-visible,  because it is required to act within 75 days of a project application unless the applicant agrees to an extension.  If the commission had failed to act on the Wilshire Grand project by a Dec. 21 deadline, it would have moved on to the City Council without any commission recommendations.

Several public speakers voiced opposition to giving the City Attorney time to study the signage part of the project, including a spokesperson for Councilwoman Perry, who has publicly clashed with Trutanich over his handling of signage issues in the downtown area.

Mitch Menzer

Menzer, a real estate attorney and registered lobbyist, explained in detail why the sign district satisfied the parameters set forth by the 9th Circuit ruling earlier this year in the case of World Wide Rush v. City of Los Angeles.  He said that street improvements around the project would improve pedestrian and traffic flow, and that the 50-year old hotel now on the site, while currently operating, would become blight if vacated.  He also said a requirement that billboards be removed in the area before electronic signs could be installed satisfies the court’s opinion that signage exceptions promote visual blight reduction.  As approved by the commission, the project would be allowed three square feet of the electronic signage for every one square foot of billboard taken down.

The signage, which would be installed on a building podium between 35 to 150 feet above street level, could include scrolling and fully animated signage, as well as fixed signage changing at specified intervals.  The signs would be allowed to display off-site advertising of products and services.

Neither Carter nor Deputy City Attorney Michael Bostrom, who was also at the meeting, commented on Menzer’s exegisis on the legal issues pertinent to the sign district.  Menzer’s assurances about legal consequences may have raised a few eyebrows, though, given that Bostrom actually argued the World Wide Rush case before the 9th Circuit and is a key member of a team set up by Trutanich to deal with billboard and signage issues.  Bostrom had even spoken earlier in the meeting, pointing out that the Wilshire Grand sign district proposal has been cited in the newest sign company lawsuit against the city as an example of something that undermines sign regulations.

Bostrom said a detailed examination of the proposed signage and analysis of relevant court rulings would be needed before an opinion could be rendered as to legal consequences.  He initially said that could be done by early February, but later agreed with Roschen by saying the work could probably be done by the Jan. 27 meeting.

As for contentions by Menzer and several other speakers that the City Attorney and members of the public should have been familiar with the sign district long before now, the fact is that the signage proposal was first made officially public with release of a Draft Environmental Impact Report (DEIR) in late July of this year.  However, the city planning department made wide-ranging changes to the proposal, including the elimination of Blade Runner style signage on the hotel and office towers, and those changes were not available to the public until a week before the City Planning Commission meeting.

The entire Wilshire Grand project is expected to be taken up early next year by the City Council’s Planning and Land Use Management Committee, and if expected approval is given, by the full City Council.   Whether or not members of the committee or other councilmembers will want the opinion of the City Attorney’s office before voting on the sign district remains to be seen.  However, when a similar situation arose last year regarding signage at L.A. Live and the City Attorney’s request for time to seek a court opinion, the council unanimously sided with AEG president Tim Leiweke, who not only opposed any delay in putting up the signs, but characterized City Attorney Trutanich as a bully.

For more on the City Planning Commission meeting, see Curbed LA article.

Dennis Hathaway

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