Billboard Brouhaha


Illegal billboards plague LA, but a new ordinance passed by the planning department could cause more problems than it fixes.
LA Weekly

One day last fall, Kate Burkart-Paulson, a longtime resident of LA’s Silver Lake neighborhood, was surprised to wake up to discover that the billboard outside her duplex on Silver Lake Boulevard had been converted into a digital display, shining directly into her living room. "We need to close our blinds at night because it’s so distracting. It changes every few seconds," she explained. "It really changes the tone of the neighborhood."

Burkart-Paulson is one of many residents across the city troubled by billboards. In the past few years the city has settled several lawsuits brought by outdoor advertising companies—among them Clear Channel, CBS, and World Wide Rush, thereby allowing the companies to convert signs to both digital and so-called supergraphic billboards, which often span several building stories, despite a 2002 ban on new billboards in the city. As a result, the offending signs began appearing across LA in late 2008, inspiring the anger of community residents and anti-clutter proponents across the city.

Responding to pressure from community organizers, developers and outdoor advertising lobbyists, the City Planning Commission—facing the June expiration of their December 2008 temporary sign moratorium—approved a comprehensive new sign ordinance for LA on March 26 by a vote of 6-3. The measure will next be considered by the LA City Council. A date for that vote has not yet been set.

The new ordinance all but bans digital billboards and supergraphics in the city, except in 21 designated sign districts, including most of Chinatown, Hollywood and downtown, as well as parts of Century City, Boyle Heights and Miracle Mile. Hoping to address what has been seen as a relatively lax enforcement policy for billboards, the ordinance also calls for much stricter enforcement guidelines, including hefty financial penalties for violators.

"If I said you can park anywhere and never get a ticket, you wouldn’t obey parking rules," said Craig Lawson, a land use consultant in LA who represents a number of local retail and residential projects. "It’s the enforcement problem that is causing a signage problem." Jeff Aran, director of government affairs for the California Sign Association agrees. "The city should enforce the ordinance that’s already on the books and abandon this ongoing waste of civic energy," he said.

Additionally, the ordinance requires a reduction in existing signage as a condition for establishing the sign districts. While the potential sign districts represent a compromise between competing interests, they’ve been met with cautious optimism. "This sign ordinance isn’t perfect, but it’s a big improvement over what’s on the books now. Requiring meaningful off-site sign reduction as a condition for establishing sign districts could be a real benefit to neighborhoods suffering from the visual clutter and blight of billboards," declared Dennis Hathaway, president of the Coalition to Ban Billboard Blight, a non-profit opposing most outdoor advertising in LA.

But while the new ordinance, if passed, may satisfy some early opponents, the effect of the new regulations on the architecture and design industry still remains a question. Thus far, many architects have been concerned by the lack of visual analysis undertaken by the city regarding billboards. For instance, Bob Hale, managing principal at Rios Clementi Hale, pointed to LA’s unique horizontality, which he said makes it different from New York and other cities, though the city has yet to consider such distinctions. “It seems to me,” Hale said, “that the planning department is using the hue and cry of a community bombarded by digital billboards to do a wholesale recreation of the sign code from scratch, even though no one I know of has complained about [the existing sign code]."

John Kaliski, president of the AIA/LA chapter and principal at Urban Studio, called the changes a visual ordinance, not a billboard one. The challenge, he stressed, is approving a sign ordinance that balances competing interests to create successful legislation. "In general, we’re seeking a balance between creativity in sign districts and sensible citywide guidelines to ensure the integrity of communities," Kaliski said.

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