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L.A.'s great signage debate

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It's remarkable, the issues that generate political controversy in this city. The school district puts new classroom buildings right up against major freeways, even after a devastating USC study linking highway pollution to stunted lung growth in children, and no one bats an eye. Gang violence flares in northeast L.A., and the anxiety gripping certain blocks barely registers in the rest of the city.

But wrap a building on Westwood Boulevard in a gigantic Pepsi logo, or turn a billboard on Wilshire into a digital sign? Suddenly the chattering classes are in an uproar.

In recent weeks, fueled by anger about what public officials have allowed opportunistic billboard companies to get away with, the Great Signage Debate has become L.A.'s version of the AIG bonus scandal, with political posturing to match. Fresh drama is likely to unfold this morning, when the Planning Commission meets in Van Nuys to try to break its recent deadlock, pass a new sign ordinance and send it along to the City Council.

Clearly, the city has made a hash of billboard oversight. City Hall lawyers signed off on a 2006 legal settlement allowing more than 800 billboards to be turned into digital signs, and separately has been mostly powerless to slow the growth of supergraphics, those gigantic wraparound advertisements that are capable of mummifying entire pieces of architecture. As parts of the battle play out in court, complicated by free-speech questions, billboard companies have rushed to put up as many new signs as they can. The result is a legal and political mess, to be sure.

But is it an urban mess as well? Is Dennis Hathaway, tireless leader of the Coalition to Ban Billboard Blight, right when he claims, as he wrote in a Times op-ed last year, that billboards are "degrading aesthetically as well as socially"? Does former Planning Commission President Jane Usher have reason to argue, as she did last week, that "the city of Los Angeles is suffering from a disease called sign proliferation"?

I'm not convinced. I certainly have been critical of new architecture -- the L.A. Live complex in particular -- that engages the public sphere only through the aggressive deployment of billboards and other signage. In this particular case, I'd argue that the proposed sign ordinance would benefit from additional flexibility and, when it comes to enforcement, sharper teeth.

But in general I can't seem to summon much outrage about what the new crop of signs is doing to the cityscape, though I am certainly fascinated by how many others I know can and have. What's more, the hyperbole on this issue from Hathaway, Usher and others has sidetracked what might otherwise have been a productive conversation about the complex relationship between billboards and urbanism in Los Angeles.

In truth, the signage controversy is a proxy fight. What's really driving the anger of billboard opponents, particularly in certain parts of the Westside, is a growing sense that the city has become ungovernable, that dense development and other changes to the cityscape are being imposed on their neighborhoods from without and that our mayor remains, on these issues at least, asleep at the switch.

In that sense, the idea that billboard growth is an assault on our collective urban-design principles is at best a red herring. This is a place where billboards and other kinds of signage have long aspired to the size and prominence of architecture -- not just the famed Hollywood sign but also the thrillingly tall billboards and other signs on the Sunset Strip in West Hollywood and the 32-foot-high illuminated letters, spelling out LAX, marking the entrance to the Los Angeles International Airport.

At the same time, many of our buildings have long dreamed of becoming signs, or at least performing a credible imitation of them. To pick a recent example, think of the new apartment complex wrapping a Metro stop at Wilshire and Vermont, where architecture firm Arquitectonica and graphic designer April Greiman turned a prominent corner facade into a two-part mural that depicts a hand holding a rice bowl -- and wears its love for billboard culture on its sleeve.

Or the 5-year-old Caltrans building downtown, by Thom Mayne and the Santa Monica firm Morphosis, where the tangle of scaffolding and oversized signage that leans out over Main Street is clearly inspired by rooftop billboards a few blocks south. Or Frank Gehry's Santa Monica Place, where the giant mesh lettering on the 1981 facade was inseparable from the architectural character of the original shopping center (which is now being reconfigured) as a whole.

That sort of envy-driven identity crisis -- one piece of the urban fabric desiring rather openly to be reborn as another -- has generated a good deal of productive architectural energy in this city over the course of many decades. Along with neon and hand-painted signs and architecture that is both ambitious and unpretentious, it is one of the qualities that gives the Los Angeles cityscape its brash, singular character. We'd be foolish to toss it out entirely for the sake of streets scrubbed entirely clean of intrusive commercial signage.

If properly conceived and regulated, after all, sign districts like the ones that already exist downtown and in Hollywood can add life and spirit to the streetscape, not signal a kind of urban-planning Armageddon. The same is true of electronic billboards and even supergraphics.

Indeed, other cities in the region that have tightly regulated billboards and also channeled new construction into transit corridors -- in short, those that carefully followed the smart-growth gospel -- have in certain cases created banal stucco canyons drained of urban energy. Pasadena's Colorado Boulevard, particularly the stretch east of the Old Town shopping district, is one obvious example.

There's no doubt that Los Angeles needs to beef up its billboard oversight. When a digital sign is shining into somebody's bedroom, or if some poor dentist or accountant has seen his building wrapped and now looks out toward the world through Diddy's nostril or the jagged crown of the Statue of Liberty, that clearly qualifies as an abuse of conventional advertising practice and the limited free-speech rights that come with it.

This is one element of the billboard debate that has so far received too little attention. One reason that billboards -- particularly the electronic variety -- need more regulatory attention these days is that the boulevards that crisscross the city are, increasingly, not just places to drive along but places to live. As Los Angeles grows more crowded and vertical development becomes more common, the role the Strip plays in the life of the city is changing. Our ideas about billboards need to change with it.

In quiet, single-family neighborhoods, meanwhile, homeowners reasonably fear that the qualities that attracted them to those pockets of the city in the first place are under siege. For them, a garish new billboard is just another version of a boxy new apartment building on the corner: It is a symbol of what they see as crass collusion between commercial interests and a City Hall that pays no heed to neighborhood concerns about growth. It is that fear that has pushed the rhetoric about billboards to such unreasonable heights.

christopher.hawthorne@ latimes.com

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