Pro-billboard politicians and anti-clutter activists are facing off after a vote last week by the Los Angeles City Council that could usher in dozens of monster-size billboards and video displays to be mounted on the outer walls of the Los Angeles Convention Center — aimed at tens of thousands of motorists driving by one of the most congested intersections in America.

Called by critics a sharp slap at the City Council’s own 2002 ban on billboards, the decision grants exclusive “signage rights” to wealthy Anschutz Entertainment Group, owners of the Staples Center and major contributors via employees, relatives and friends to the political campaigns of several city leaders.

Still facing final approval by a city commission as well as a City Council revote, the proposed deal would allow the firm controlled by Colorado billionaire Phil Anschutz, which also manages the $2.5 billion L.A. Live entertainment venue, to erect a massive 50,000 square feet of billboards and flashing electronic signs — the equivalent of 74 full-sized billboards — on the outer walls of the taxpayer-owned Convention Center.

The Convention Center’s glass towers, designed by a noted architect to provide a see-through view of the city to conventiongoers, would be covered by two gargantuan signs facing South Figueroa Street, and at least four digital billboards would face the 10/110 freeway interchange.

To complicate matters, the state Senate jumped into the fray late Tuesday night, voting down a bill sponsored by pro-Anschutz politicians that would have created a special exemption to state billboard regulations.

Senator Alan Lowenthal (D-Long Beach) called the bill “illegal.” Senator Gloria Romero (D-Los Angeles) referred to the scheme as “extraneous special-interest crap.” The effort was led by an Assembly member from Redlands and Senator Mark Ridley-Thomas (D-Los Angeles), who brought the bill to the Senate.

Shrugging off the anger of residents and activists who are sick of both illegal and legal billboards proliferating citywide, Councilwoman Janice Hahn touted a revenue deal in which Anschutz will have to pay $2 million into the $7 billion city budget each year for a decade. “This was revenue we never had before,” Hahn says. “We don’t have to invest anything.” (The deal also gives the city a percentage of the advertising revenue Anschutz will earn, of unknown value at this point.)

Another avidly pro-billboard council member, Jan Perry, had already raised the ire of the city’s growing anti-billboard movement last spring, by successfully pushing through City Council approval of two controversial, seven-story-tall, double-faced billboards next to the 10 freeway. Last week, Perry reiterated her support for big new billboards, saying the wall of digital signs at the Convention Center won’t affect nearby residential areas.

But Kevin Fry, a spokesman for a national organization called Scenic America, which has backed successful fights in cities to get rid of billboard clutter, says that under the 15-member City Council and Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, “Los Angeles is determined to become the ugliest, most hypercommercialized city in America.”

Fry adds: “The City Council and government have completely surrendered [L.A.'s] visual environment to outdoor advertising companies. The people of Los Angeles have been demoted by their own political leaders from being citizens to being just consumers. They have been transformed from citizens to a giant pool of eyeballs for marketers. … They don’t understand that Blade Runner is a dystopia, and it is not something to emulate.”

Only Councilman Bill Rosendahl dissented in the 12-1 vote, mostly because he believes Anschutz has received too much help from the city, including $27 million in tax breaks to build L.A. Live. Rosendahl declared, “We are creating visual blight,” before getting to his real problem: “The terms of the deal and the financial cash flow are not impressive.”

Billboard critics believe the council’s behavior is further weakening the already widely ignored 2002 ban on new billboards in Los Angeles, opening up the floodgates to a never-ending stream of lawsuits and more billboards in a city blanketed by roughly 4,000 illegal billboards and thousands of legal ones.

As the Weekly reported earlier this year (see “Billboards Gone Wild,”April 24, 2008), an inept and lax effort to control billboards by the City Council, mayor and City Attorney Rocky Delgadillo has turned L.A. into the center of the illegal-billboard industry, even as other big cities remove billboards and promote ad-free boulevards.

According to one city bureaucrat who asked not to be named, the Convention Center is not located in a special sports or entertainment district, so the City Council will have to create a special “sign district” around the Convention Center in order to allow such bright, big outdoor ads.

Without the special sign district, the bureaucrat says, Anschutz cannot cover the Convention Center with megabillboards the length of a football field.

“The frightening thing is the City Council is almost unanimous in pursuing this,” says billboard activist Steve Freedman. “And Rosendahl just didn’t like the deal. There is no indication that any of them were against it.”

Adds Dennis Hathaway, president of the local Coalition to Ban Billboard Blight, “This deal essentially drives a stake through the heart of the 2002 ban.”

Because the pro-billboard City Council has continually ignored the hard-fought 2002 billboard ban — for example, by granting certain companies the right to advertise on small billboards at city bus stops and on big new billboards in “special sign districts” like Hollywood, the courts have twice ruled that City Hall has squandered its right to ban other kinds of billboard proliferation.

In one case, U.S. District Judge Audrey Collins issued a preliminary injunction blocking Los Angeles from prosecuting a “supergraphics” company. In her ruling, she slammed Los Angeles City Hall for last spring approving two 76-foot-tall billboards avidly pushed by Jan Perry next to the 10 freeway, then trying to tell this nonpermitted supergraphics firm it could not follow suit.

In fact, Villaraigosa, the council and Delgadillo all ignored loud warnings that the city was creating a precedent with its actions last spring.

“It's very hard to imagine how the city can successfully claim that it still has the right to deny other companies the right to put up their billboards on city streets and freeways,” Hathaway says.

Activists like Hathaway see the Anschutz scheme as yet another sweetheart deal for a private company with close ties to many of the politicians who participated in last week’s vote. Others see it as a potential disaster in terms of visual blight, traffic safety and potential future liability if driver distraction leads to freeway accidents.

Janice Hahn scoffs at the idea that drivers will be distracted by the massive video displays to be erected at the Convention Center. “I have been driving in Los Angeles my entire life, and I have never been distracted by a billboard yet,” she says. (But, in fact, L.A. has almost no billboards along its freeways — until now. They are restricted by state law and federal rules designed to promote safety and reduce freeway distractions.)

The Convention Center billboard scheme puts the entire project under the lens of Caltrans because it is within 660 feet of a freeway. “The edge of the Convention Center is 330 feet away from the edge of the right-of-way of the road,” says Scenic America's Fry, meaning Caltrans has jurisdiction over those ads.

The state law enforced by Caltrans forbids quickly flashing signs that expose messages for less than four seconds and bans message-center displays within 1,000 feet of any other message-center display on the same side of the road. No display can exceed 1,200 square feet per billboard. The City Council has paved the way to give Anschutz 50,000 square feet of billboards, but it’s unknown if any single billboard violates state law, and Caltrans has not yet weighed in. (The bill voted down by the state Senate would have created an exemption for Anschutz and taken Caltrans out of the picture.)

If California fails to enforce those laws, the federal government can punish the state by withholding 10 percent — roughly $300 million to $400 million — in annual federal highway funds, meaning that with last week’s vote, the City Council has put Los Angeles on a possible collision course with the fiscally stretched state government in Sacramento.

With the legal mess created by Villaraigosa, Delgadillo and the City Council, in ignoring an existing billboard ban and selectively trying to favor certain billboard firms, the City Council’s three-member Planning and Land Use Management committee (PLUM) is finally taking some modest action.

Last week — ironically just hours before the full City Council cut its 12-1 deal with Anschutz — the PLUM committee passed a motion that would address the colossal problems that have been raised in billboard court cases.

The motion by Councilman Jack Weiss calls for the city’s Planning Department, Department of Building and Safety and City Attorney Delgadillo’s office to toughen the 2002 ban on billboards.

John Welborne, a spokesman for the anti-clutter group Scenic California, says residents of Los Angeles woke up too late. “The city is a lost cause. Move to Beverly Hills or Pasadena.”

LA Weekly