Editor's Note: See list of 20 proposed sign districts citywide at bottom. Correction: Councilman Tom LaBonge, not Herb Wesson, represents Miracle Mile.

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.

Now, City Hall is trying to fix these messes. Tiny sign districts like the MTA bus-yard ploy would not be allowed, and would have to be much greater in acreage. And landowners who are awarded multimillion-dollar-generating sign districts overlaying communities like Miracle Mile and Northridge would need the approval of other landowners in the new “sign district,” and would have to pay a modest fee of about $1,000 per block.

These tweaks don’t impress anti-clutter critics. Dennis Hathaway, president of the Coalition to Ban Billboard Blight, calls the sign districts another “potential loophole for getting a lot more advertising into the public realm because they allow basically unlimited discretion.”

Kevin Fry, spokesman for Scenic America, which has helped cities get rid of their street clutter, says simply: “You’re just bunching up the most egregious ugliness in the most highly visible and well-trafficked parts of the city.”

Attorney Paul Fisher, who represents small billboard firms, notes that sign districts have gotten the city into legal trouble before. “It seems like [city leaders] don’t get it. The court says the problem with your law are the exemptions.”

The Billboard Wars got the attention of Los Angeles media last year, following a Weekly exposé calling L.A. the center of the illegal billboard industry in America. In the past, city leaders had successfully spun the sign districts as a big plus — flashy additions to the landscape that culturally enhance an area.

That notion was accepted on highly urbanized Hollywood and Sunset boulevards. But under the new plan, a crucial fact some Los Angeles media missed last week, is that the template can be applied to low-slung Van Nuys and Boyle Heights, and anti-clutter areas like Encino and Westwood, which are filled with people who want peace and quiet.

The number of signs allowed — including supposedly “banned” digital, rooftop and supergraphics — is entirely up to the planning department and City Council, which can also decide to add far more sign districts citywide if it chooses. While cities like Houston have true bans and have regreened their boulevards, L.A. senior city planner Alan Bell insists: “We can’t come up with a cookie-cutter approach.”

And that stock argument is what neighborhoods fear. In 2004, Garcetti spearheaded the Hollywood Signage Supplemental Use District to allow supergraphics on Hollywood buildings. In exchange, the sign companies and landowners would tear down many old billboards. Outdoor ads exploded — “a big increase,” Hathaway says — yet only about six billboards were dismantled. “It is,” Hathaway notes, “absurd.”

Barbara Broide, president of the Westwood South of Santa Monica Boulevard Homeowners Association, wonders how City Hall can continue its failed policies of exception upon exception, which have left L.A. with 10,000 billboards, 4,000 of them illegal. “The city should have already learned,” she says.

The 20 Proposed Neighborhoods Targeted with Sign Districts:

Ballona/Playa Vista: Lincoln between Ballona Creek and Westchester
Beverly Center: Beverly Center mall and streets
Boyle Heights: Part of Cesar Chavez Boulevard
Chinatown: Most of Chinatown
Central City North: Olympic Boulevard near Soto
Century City: Avenue of the Stars
Downtown: Much of downtown
Encino: Along a huge stretch of Ventura Boulevard
Hollywood: Much of Hollywood
Koreatown: On Wilshire, about 20 blocks, up to three blocks wide
LAX: Most of LAX 
Miracle Mile: Roughly 15 blocks along Wilshire
Northridge: Northridge mall and streets
Panorama City: Panorama City mall and streets
San Pedro: Shopping district
Studio City: Neighborhoods on south and west sides of Universal City
West Adams/Baldwin Hills: Crenshaw Plaza
Warner enter: Dozens of blocks in Canoga Park
Westwood: Along Wilshire Boulevard

LA Weekly