Ah, billboard companies. The cartoon villains of Los Angeles.
Fun fact: When a tree has the impudence to stand between a passerby and a billboard that they may or may not want to look at, the billboard company can simply trim the trees — i.e., hack off all the leaves. All the company needs to do is get a Los Angeles city simple permit, for which it doesn't have to prove anything.
Outfront Media (formerly CBS Outdoor, formerly Viacom Outdoor), the third-largest outdoor advertising company in the United States, owns a billboard on top of El Condor restaurant in Silver Lake, just a few paces north of Sunset Triangle Plaza. Sunset Triangle Plaza is a famed pocket park in L.A., consisting of a tiny section of street that was blocked off to drivers and painted with green polka dots, and a triangle-shaped median with grass and about 12 trees.
The little urban parklet hosts the Silver Lake Farmers Market every Tuesday and Saturday, where you can sit and lounge under a shady tree and listen to some weird hippie play bongo drums and sing songs to kids.
All except the part about shady trees.
Here's how the plaza looked a few years ago, the last time Google sent its magic Street View car:
You'll notice that the billboard across the street from the park — a Spanish-language ad for a delicious-looking McDonald's crispy chicken sandwich — is barely visible through the trees.
And so it was that, sometime in December, Outfront Media hired some contractor to trim the trees. But they went a little overboard. Here's the plaza last week:
Looks like they took a bit too much off there. Here's a closeup:
That tree and two others have been "topped" — arborist lingo for when you lop off the top of a tree, which is often fatal. That tree, and a couple others in the plaza, likely will die long before their time. And Silver Lake residents are pissed.
"They did a horrible job," says Pasqual Lombardo, an attorney who lives in the area. "They butchered those trees."
Lombardo and other residents were astonished to learn that Outfront hadn't even gone to the trouble to obtain the easily obtainable city permit to trim the trees.
"This large corporation can come into a public space without permits and basically destroy trees that were just becoming beautiful," says Silver Lake resident Bobby Peppey. "It's a travesty."
Dennis Hathaway, the city's leading anti-billboard activist, says he sees this sort of thing happen all the time in Los Angeles.
"There's a pattern — this isn’t just an isolated incident," Hathaway says. "They didn’t get a permit in this case. But they could have. They could have just walked right in there and gotten a permit without anything, without any city oversight, any regulations."
Billboard companies are known to give a lot of money to members of the City Council and other local politicians, and Outfront Media is no exception. Since it changed its name to Outfront in 2014, the company has managed to donate money to five out of 15 City Council members, including council president Herb Wesson and Silver Lake council member Mitch O'Farrell — a little more than a month ago.
O'Farrell's spokesman, Tony Arranaga, sent us this statement:
Outfront Media has ensured the community that they will replace three trees, donate public service announcement space on their billboard, add lighting and donate umbrellas for the adjacent plaza. However, they must also take full responsibility for the illegal trimming of the trees and be held accountable for their contractor's act of vandalism. Unfortunately, this type of trimming takes place across the City every day. I have already started working on a plan to evaluate city procedures to prevent this from happening again.
We asked Arranaga what exactly "held accountable" meant. Would the billboard company be prosecuted for felony vandalism, much as a kid spray-painting a wall might be pursued? The O'Farrell spokesman never answered that question, although he did add that Councilman O'Farrell plans to introduce a motion this week to "evaluate the current permit process."
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Not all the residents are happy with Outfront's peace offerings — adding umbrellas and lighting and such.
"We would like to see the billboard taken down," Peppey says. "And we would like all the trees replaced — with trees that were the size of the trees that were damaged."
"They have done it before, and they’ll do it again," Lombardo says. "The sign should be taken down to send some kind of a message to these guys that they can’t get away with this.
"If this is not an act of vandalism, what is?"