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Billboards Gone Wild, L.A. City Council Defiled 

Citizens take matters into their own hands

Wednesday, Dec 31 2008
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Sick of years of inaction by bungling city bureaucrats and city lawyers, who have rendered all but dead a formal 2001 ban on new billboards, teams of residents roam L.A. streets, counting and documenting thickets of illegal and legal billboards in Westchester and Venice.

Another group of angry Angelenos has staged protests under newly erected digital billboards — mass advertising so bright it is visible up to four miles away and glows through the closed curtains of private homes in Hollywood and on the Westside.

Encino residents fed up with billboard clutter were the first to use official channels to question a massive new digital billboard, followed by Westwood residents who are appealing a decision by the Department of Building and Safety to allow a huge digital billboard in a protected Pedestrian Oriented District — where such garish, flashing signs were thought to have been banned but have slipped through the toothless city rules.

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Yet another anticlutter group, the Coalition to Ban Billboard Blight, filed a lawsuit attacking the city’s disastrous 2006 settlement agreement with billboard companies, which will ultimately allow the firms to erect more than 850 glowing, flashing billboards in every area of L.A.

Los Angeles, today one of the ugliest of U.S. cities, is home to more than 10,000 billboards, as many as 4,000 of them illegal. But a strange new civic effort has bloomed in disinterested L.A., attracting people tired of City Hall’s excuses about graffiti, trash-piled alleys and abandoned furniture, and its demonstrable failure — after spending millions in taxpayer money on beautification — to create attractive avenues or uncluttered business strips.

In the past two months, L.A. City Council, led by Eric Garcetti — an outspoken advocate of big billboards and streetside mass advertising ±— has been hammered by criticism from Silver Lake, Hollywood and the Westside residents, who decried the latest neighborhood assault: intense digital billboards made up of nearly 500,000 LED light bulbs that glare for blocks. The outcry embarrassed the City Council into approving a three-month moratorium on new digital billboards, significantly watered down from a proposed six-month moratorium.

Critics hope that during the moratorium, bureaucrats will finally fix the city’s Sybil-like rules and regulations on outdoor advertisers. But the entire 15-member council and Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa have taken money from Clear Channel, CBS Outdoor and other billboard giants, and there’s no guarantee that things will change.

While pols spent years looking the other way, so, by and large, did the Los Angeles media, until L.A. Weekly published “Billboards Gone Wild: Is City Hall corrupt, or just inept?”

After that, the Los Angeles Daily News borrowed our headline to publish its own piece and Los Angeles Times columnist Steve Lopez jumped on the story.

We also reported that city inspectors were in the dark about the numbers, locations and owners of the city’s legal and illegal billboards. Without that basic data, citizens had nothing solid to really fight against. Yet, when the Weekly formally asked the Department of Building and Safety for that basic information, inexplicably, its officials alerted Clear Channel Outdoor and CBS Outdoor.

Thus tipped off, the large billboard firms sued to keep the newspaper from obtaining and then publishing what some activists call “The List” of all billboard locations and owners. A judge ultimately ruled in the Weekly’s favor.

Cities with effective governments are moving in the opposite direction Los Angeles has been headed: They are removing, not adding, mass advertising signage on their boulevards. Will the billboard companies, with their deep pockets, allow City Attorney Rocky Delgadillo, the Los Angeles City Council and building inspectors finally to crack down? In mid-December, Clear Channel warned that it might sue to stop even the mild temporary moratorium.

From “Billboards Gone Wild: 4,000 Illegal Billboards Choke L.A.’s Neighborhoods. Is City Hall Corrupt or Just Inept?” by Christine Pelisek

Shortly before Thanksgiving, a furtive crew of workers for L.A. Outdoor Advertising poured a cement foundation next to the Harbor Freeway and anchored a huge metal structure into the wet cement. A few days and roughly $100,000 later, the crew had erected L.A.’s latest illegal billboard atop an equally illegal 10-ton superstructure that can be removed only with a wrecker.

Adding insult to injury, the whole thing was built in full view of the windowed offices of Los Angeles city billboard inspectors — a tiny, and some say incredibly inept, group who are failing in City Hall’s purported effort to find and remove an estimated 4,000 illegal billboards blighting L.A.

Reach the writer at cpelisek@laweekly.com

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