By Besha Rodell
By Patrick Range McDonald
By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
Last week, a meeting at L.A.’s mini–City Hall in Van Nuys was packed with more than 150 developers, city workers, anti-clutter activists, lawyers, and a handful of politicians and officials. As a gentle rain blurred the ad-cluttered San Fernando Valley street scape outside, the subject inside the historic 1930s-era building was the city planning department’s proposed outdoor-advertising rules and billboard ban.
The department had posted on its Web site a 34-page “Department of City Planning Recommendation Report,” but confusion reigned.
City planners say their new plan toughens L.A.’s weak sign laws. Some speakers applauded a “ban” on digital billboards, large supergraphics and rooftop signs citywide, and the Los Angeles Times duly reported the city proposal as a “ban” on digital billboards and supergraphics.
In fact, the ban is not much of a ban at all. Only a few activists noticed some key fine print which, L.A. Weekly has learned, preserves a major loophole that lets outdoor advertisers demand massive new billboards, digital billboards, supergraphics and other outdoor advertising in 20 neighborhoods and business districts citywide. (See list at bottom of this story.)
It’s all there on pages 18, 25 and 31: innocuous-looking recommendations to continue to allow “sign districts” — an idea first approved by the Los Angeles City Council in 2002.
Nobody on the Villaraigosa-appointed Planning Commission told the crowd that these sign districts, even though they will not be allowed in all sections of the city, openly invite Clear Channel, CBS Outdoor and developers like CIM Group and Sunny Astani to seek permission for Tokyo-like thickets of digital and traditional billboards and supergraphics draping buildings in 20 targeted areas.
Activists in those areas, from Encino to Westwood, when contacted by L.A. Weekly, had no idea that their areas have been dubbed by city leaders as “regional centers” supposedly appropriate for block upon block of outdoor ads.
“I probably would lead the charge to fight it tooth and nail,” says Lydia Mather, president of the Van Nuys Neighborhood Council. Historic downtown Van Nuys — a 10-block corridor of government buildings, restaurants and mom-and-pop shops — is being dubbed by City Hall as a “regional center” and thus a target for a sign district.
“We are working on revitalizing Van Nuys, and that is not in the plan,” says a disgusted Mather. “Inviting that kind of billboards? Absolutely not. I know my board and when we do bring it up [the response will be], ‘Over my dead body.’”
In fact, the city’s curious definition for a “regional center” is bound to become a point of rancor and political warfare in L.A.
Although the Times inaccurately repeated City Hall’s spin that “sign districts” are for heavily urbanized areas like downtown and Hollywood, that’s not the case.
One area is a hilly neighborhood of Studio City, a mix of expensive homes and office buildings next to Universal City. Neighbors there, already in a fury over a proposed, massive luxury complex near the Hollywood Freeway, probably don’t see their community as a highly urbanized “regional center.”
Others include Miracle Mile, where groups are battling to preserve the neighborhood represented by pro-growth City Councilman Tom LaBonge, and a huge area of Koreatown, where City Councilman Herb Wesson has opened the floodgates to outsized apartment projects.
The 20 areas targeted as “regional” or “regional commercial” centers, where massive digital, traditional and supergraphic billboard installations could be allowed, include the Ballona Wetlands and Westchester along Lincoln Boulevard; most of Koreatown and Chinatown; Ventura Boulevard in pricey Encino; a portion of Avenue of the Stars; and a shopping district in Boyle Heights.
Last fall, the planning department tightened its definition of “sign districts” after the City Council chose inappropriate locations, apparently so that deep-pocketed, politically connected developers could reap the considerable ad revenue from new billboards in such districts. Former Planning Commission President Jane Usher slammed the City Council’s plan to turn a small bus yard owned by MTA next to the 10 freeway downtown into a sign district. It was a purely political deal in which the litigious Clear Channel offered to drop an unrelated lawsuit against MTA if it could erect four 76-foot-high monster billboards by the freeway. Today, motorists are forced to watch towering, pulsating LED ads.
It didn’t take long for other billboard companies to sniff out that decision as a possible legal loophole. Pissed off that it was cited for erecting illegal supergraphics — those massive sheets draped over buildings — Philadelphia-based World Wide Rush filed a lawsuit contending that the city discriminated by forbidding its supergraphics and billboards near freeways.
Mayor Villaraigosa and Councilwoman Jan Perry and most of the City Council ignored Usher’s warning that gigantic billboards on the 10 freeway would create a foolish new precedent. Then, in July, a federal judge stopped the city from punishing World Wide Rush, citing City Hall’s many inconsistencies. That case is under appeal.
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