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A Los Angeles “Ban” That Really Invites Billboards?

Is your street involved? Click here to download aerial photos of proposed sign districts.

A new billboard battle is brewing at City Hall, amidst a war over large vinyl supergraphics and digital billboards that have riled up neighborhoods from Silver Lake to Venice and Encino to Baldwin Park.

At a showdown last week in Los Angeles City Council Chambers, a crowd of anti-clutter activists, development and billboard lobbyists, and business owners traded barbs over a concept to allow 21 areas of L.A. to be named as “sign districts” — potentially a futuristic Wild West for advertisers, jammed with outdoor ads from digital billboards to massive supergraphics, as well as huge advertising “walls” embedded into the architecture of new buildings.

The reaction to the city Planning Department idea wasn’t pretty.
“Sign districts” are an unknown concept to most residents, even though they could dramatically reshape large areas of Los Angeles if the planning staff convinces the Antonio Villaraigosa–appointed Planning Commission to approve the concept on March 26 and forward it to the City Council for a vote.

Sign districts are special animals, introduced in 2002 when the City Council adopted a ban on all new billboards. As a concession to advertisers, the city agreed to allow hundreds of new signs — but only in certain highly urbanized areas, including Hollywood.

New rules before the Los Angeles Planning Commission would attempt to again split the baby, by prohibiting massive digital, traditional and supergraphic billboards in many areas but ushering in the concept of intense billboard proliferation in 21 largely unsuspecting neighborhoods.

Although planning bureaucrats insist the City Council will choose on a case-by-case basis whether to protect residential areas, the actual ordinance fails to restrict sign districts to highly urbanized places like Hollywood.

Instead, sign districts are envisioned right across from suburban homes on Tampa Avenue and Plummer Street in Northridge, against the backyards of homes near Howard Hughes Center, next to the Ballona Wetlands, right across from Park La Brea, wrapped around the pricey Century Woods district of Century City, adjacent to classy neighborhoods in Encino, and so on.

The controversial idea is based on the arcane General Plan, in which planners years ago quietly envisioned the now-21 “regional” or “regional commercial” centers that included such disparate places as Northridge Mall, part of Cahuenga Pass and a mostly vacant lot next to wetlands. The designation meant nothing to Angelenos unknowingly living in or near a supposed “regional center” — until now.

Now, the 21 areas are set to become a massive battleground in a debate over whether L.A. should ban billboards and street clutter, as Pasadena has, or offer deals and exceptions to the huge outdoor-advertising industry.  

While planning staffers say they are trying to toughen L.A.’s laws by making it harder for developers to qualify for such a district, critics call the plan a loophole-filled expansion and a “Swiss cheese proposal that will consign us to endless lawsuits.” Barbara Broide, president of the Westwood South of Santa Monica Boulevard Homeowners Association, says the proposal provides “special entitlements for sign companies” to engage in “illegal behavior.”

Major landowners could seek permission from the City Council to bring billboard proliferation to areas including a chunk of lower Cahuenga Pass sprawled between Weddington Park and Studio City Hills; heavily residential Koreatown; most of Chinatown; a shopping district in Boyle Heights next to family apartments; downtown Van Nuys; a big area of San Pedro; and most of Wilshire Boulevard between San Vicente Boulevard and the 110 freeway, largely adjacent to houses and condos.
In fact, in total, the sign districts are directly adjacent to, or in full view of, thousands of homes and apartments. (Aerial images provided by city officials show the areas in question. To find your neighborhood, download the pdf link at the top of this story.)

At last week’s Planning Commission hearing, which lasted a mind-numbing six hours, one speaker claimed her 3-year-old son was “terrified” of supergraphics. A chiropractor testified that he was evicted for starting a Web site that criticized his landlord for allowing a giant, non-permitted Tropicana supergraphic to be draped over his windows.

The spectacle even drew a small film crew that had just returned from São Paolo, Brazil, where it documented Mayor Gilberto Kassab’s “Clean City” law that ripped out 18,000 billboards in that South American city.

Los Angeles, the capital of the illegal billboard industry in the U.S., has an estimated 4,000 illegal billboards. “Los Angeles is like what São Paolo was,” says film producer Chidem Alie.

Planning Commissioner Mike Woo, a growing critic of billboards ever since a bright, flashing digital sign appeared in his Silver Lake neighborhood without public notice, says the new sign-district concept would mean a “massive proliferation of signs in the city.”

Woo has become the anti-billboard voice on the Planning Commission after the departure of its president, Jane Usher, who resigned after clashing with Villaraigosa over housing density. Usher has allied with Carmen Trutanich, who is running for city attorney in May partly on a billboard-crackdown platform. Usher calls the sign-district proposal “terribly wrong-headed,” and slams the “zany discretionary exceptions to our own rules.”

City planners are coming under a barrage of such attacks. Planners Alan Bell and Daisy Mo said the plan preserves a long-standing rule under which sign districts could be created only if “special findings” show that a proliferation of ads somehow enhances a neighborhood’s “unique quality, theme or character.”

Critics have pooh-poohed that defense, noting that the City Council readily agreed recently to such “special findings” so it could approve City Councilwoman Jan Perry’s plan to allow four previously illegal 76-foot-tall, monster-size billboards next to the 10 freeway, where thousands of motorists are forced to view them.

Critics also point to the failure of the Hollywood Supplemental Sign District, where new supergraphics were to be allowed along Hollywood, Santa Monica and Sunset boulevards only if an even larger number of old billboards were removed. Instead, the companies openly ignored the rules, and illegal signs have exploded in number. Woo terms it a “fiasco.”

Among those pushing the plan is Planning Commissioner Sean Burton. He claimed the sign districts are being contemplated only in the densest and most urban areas. Yet city maps plainly show this not to be the case. Burton, once a land-use attorney at O’Melveny & Myers, is an executive at CityView, an investor in market-rate homes chaired by his father-in-law, the politically connected Henry Cisneros.

Planning Commission President Bill Roschen, a founder of Roschen Van Cleve Architects, argued to the crowd of 150 that sign districts can be made to work, saying that, “The biggest misconception is that [sign districts are] a development tool.”

How should the Planning Commission proceed?

The Coalition to Ban Billboard Blight solicited an opinion from John Baker, a national legal expert on outdoor sign law. Baker warned that a key court case striking down L.A.’s 2002 billboard ban is now before the federal courts. Until that legal tangle is resolved, Hathaway says, Baker strongly believes politicians in Los Angeles would be foolish to make new plans that could worsen the debacle and invite even more lawsuits borne by Los Angeles taxpayers. Baker opines: “It is simply not safe for the city to have the authority to create new sign districts.”