Stuck in downtown Los Angeles traffic? Grinding your teeth in gridlock at the 10 and 110 interchange, where on average 311,000 motorists pass by each day? The City Council has something to calm your ride through one of the world's busiest intersections.
A proposed field of billboards.
The vista of downtown from the 110 and 10 freeways gives millions of visitors to the region their first view of the heart of L.A.
But if everything goes AEG's way, the company and the Los Angeles City Council will alter the cityscape in a way L.A. residents have never blessed. The plan, peddled as crucial to the financial viability of Farmers Field NFL stadium, would transform a chunk of southwest downtown into a Las Vegas–style advertising platform for up to 41 billboards and ultrabright displays.
"It's hideous politically," says Steve Sann, who chairs the Westwood Community Council. "It's hideous from a policy standpoint that the city is now getting into bed with the billboard industry and a megadeveloper. And, of course, it's going to be hideous visually for generations who are going to have to look at this" — 113 million motorists annually.
Squeezing Farmers Field onto a pinched piece of land hemmed in by the two freeways will require razing the Convention Center's West Hall. Under a "memorandum of understanding" (MOU) approved by the City Council and Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, a narrow new convention center wing, dubbed Pico Hall, would replace the far larger West Hall.
A quiet part of the deal, never publicly debated, is the major billboard advertising revenue demanded by AEG. It can be achieved only if the City Council exempts the Convention Center and Farmers Field from the city's ban on new billboards, enacted to protect residents and motorists from a proliferation of visual blight in a city with an estimated 10,000 legal and illegal billboards.
In the under-the-radar plan, the City Council soon would adopt a "citywide sign ordinance" that allows it to rezone the area around Farmers Field to create a Blade Runner–esque "sign district."
Documents obtained by the Weekly show that AEG hopes to slather huge billboards and other signs on the big, curved turquoise wall of the Convention Center's South Hall, a public building, as well as on the new, publicly owned Pico Hall and other public structures.
The enabling law, a "citywide sign ordinance," will be debated by the City Council's Planning and Land Use Management committee (PLUM) on Oct. 18. PLUM is chaired by ardent billboard advocates Ed Reyes, Jose Huizar and Paul Krekorian, all of whom have accepted billboard-industry money.
Dennis Hathaway, who leads BanBillboardBlight.org, says the citywide sign ordinance gives developers the right to dramatically alter targeted L.A. neighborhoods with LED-illuminated billboards. Although few Angelenos know about it, the city has already selected 14 neighborhoods where developers could apply for "sign districts," including Koreatown and Studio City.
Tom LaBonge, who has accepted billboard-industry money and is a member of the City Council's ad hoc committee examining the Farmers Field deal, dodged key questions put to him by the Weekly about the MOU allowing AEG to install 41 signs around Farmers Field.
Krekorian, who has effusively praised the concept of wrapping skyscrapers in digital billboard technology, refused to discuss the scheme through an aide. Jan Perry, the council's most aggressive supporter of digital billboards for large developments and freeway routes, responded via an aide, who wrote in an email that Perry "cannot support any signage" until much later in the process. But in fact, she already has backed major signage in the MOU..
New details quietly being worked out allow an even more extensive field of billboards than described in the nonbinding MOU.
According to a July 20 AEG chart and map given to the Weekly by City Councilman Bill Rosendahl, 19 signs could be LED advertisements and displays — images whose light can be seen for up to four miles, piercing the closed curtains of homes and businesses. The 19 would cover 14,866 square feet. Another 25 brightly lit displays and sponsorship billboards are detailed in AEG's private July 20 document sent to city leaders, including chief legislative analyst Jerry Miller.
AEG spokesman Michael Roth told the Weekly, "I'm not familiar with the signage plan document" from AEG dated July 20, and agreed to have AEG's attorney call to comment on it. The attorney, Ted Fikre, did not call back.
The billboard scheme is draped in secrecy — and apparent obfuscation. A key city consultant report describes 37 of the 41 signs proposed in the MOU as "architectural digital prints."
What are they?
Experienced urban planners tell the Weekly the phrase "architectural digital prints" is meaningless. A top city planner admits that city officials have not yet defined the term used in the MOU.
"In my work in the design studio, I never heard that term," says Emily Gable Luddy, the city's former chief urban designer, who oversaw numerous projects in her 20 years before retiring several months ago.
"If it's designed to sell a product," Luddy says, "it's a billboard."
Many Angelenos view L.A.'s thickets of billboards as blight, and express disgust that Villaraigosa and the City Council seem to be in the service of huge outdoor advertisers such as Clear Channel Outdoor and CBS Outdoors. Only Councilman Paul Koretz has not taken billboard-industry money.
The city's consultant, CSL, whose "Los Angeles Event Center Signage Analysis" goes on for 22 pages, used the word "billboard" nowhere, instead repeating the phrase "architectural digital print."
Los Angeles Deputy Director of Planning Alan Bell says he doesn't know what an "architectural digital print" is.
"That's a good question," says Bell, and it's "something that needs to be defined." Bell wonders if it is "analogous to the architectural lighting" the City Council has approved on the proposed 65-story Wilshire Grand skyscraper.
In addition to digital billboards nearly 100 feet high, the Wilshire Grand will be covered in a multistory LED design of images such as vines and leaves. But once those several million LED bulbs are built into the skyscraper's skin, the lights can be transformed to gigantic commercial ads with a flick of a programmable switch — by order of the City Council.
Los Angeles residents are increasingly mistrusting of the avidly pro-billboard City Council. In 2006, billboard proponent and City Council president Eric Garcetti and City Attorney Rocky Delgadillo agreed to let national outdoor advertising giants erect nearly 900 digital billboards in L.A. neighborhoods.
Garcetti's "green" reputation was badly tarnished by the resulting outcry. The widely hated billboards were halted after about 80 had been installed.
Some residents see the emerging Farmers Field details as another sellout to the commercialization of L.A.'s public spaces, forcing 113 million motorists a year to view crass ads that degrade the city's livability but enrich AEG.
Westwood activist Sann says of I.M. Pei, renowned architect and the designer of the Convention Center expansion, "I bet they thought their assignment was to design a building, not a billboard."
Victor Citrin, a substitute teacher, says obnoxious advertising shining from the top floor of AEG's L.A. Live entertainment center has badly degraded Pico-Union, a working-class neighborhood that predates L.A. Live by several decades.
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Thanks to an exception granted to AEG by the City Council a few years ago, lights from a handful of huge outdoor billboards stream into his son's bedroom.
Says Citrin: "There's a circular, cupola kind of thing" on the AEG Regal Theaters complex, "and at the top of that building are the signs that advertise. Their light really penetrates into our neighborhood, into my son's bedroom. That thing is on all night long."
Architects and design professionals increasingly question the council's handling of its skyline. "The city has not been very wise about how they're giving away the store to billboard companies or AEG, to allow something that has tremendous impact on how you view the city," says Stuart Magruder, an architect who worked for New York–based Richard Meier & Partners before moving to L.A.
Magruder questions the city's argument that developers need to install commercial billboards to make their projects financially viable. "That's not the case in other cities," he says. "It didn't happen in New York or San Francisco."