Barbara Broide got the alert from two neighbors Saturday afternoon: Just one day after Los Angeles’ new ban on outdoor signs went into effect, a two-story advertisement was being draped across an office building on Santa Monica Boulevard.
Broide drove to the site and found a crane lifting the tarp-like sign. Then she quizzed one of the workers, demanding to know whether it had been approved by the city’s Department of Building and Safety.
“I asked him for his permit, and he didn’t respond,” said Broide, president of the Westwood South of Santa Monica Homeowners Assn. “We kept taking pictures and they were clearly irritated with us.”
Less than a week after the 90-day sign moratorium went into effect, residents of Westwood, Hancock Park and other neighborhoods say they are seeing a blitzkrieg of new signs without permits.
Three billboards have been erected in downtown Los Angeles -- all illegally, according to a complaint filed by the city attorney’s office. Meanwhile, at least four supergraphics -- images on vinyl or plastic that are stretched across the sides of low- and high-rise buildings -- have become the subject of investigations by building inspectors.
Three of those supergraphics bear the name of a businessman who has sued the city to keep his images on the sides of another multistory office, generating plenty of publicity along the way.
The council approved the latest sign ban on Dec. 17 to give city lawyers more time to draft new outdoor advertising laws that have a better chance of withstanding legal challenges. Yet this week’s rash of neighborhood complaints has only underscored the city’s Sisyphean struggle to regulate outdoor signs, which some residents consider a commercial form of urban blight.
Foes of such advertising say that building owners and billboard companies are trying to take advantage of the holiday break, when many city workers -- including building inspectors -- go on vacation.
“Certainly, with reduced [city] crews and people taking time off, I don’t think you could find a better time to put up a billboard illegally,” said Cindy Chvatal, a Hancock Park resident who saw a supergraphic applied to the east side of a 10-story office building at 4929 Wilshire Blvd.
Still, one high-level official said his agency has enough inspectors to respond to the holiday sign complaints. Four images have gone up without permits since Dec. 25 and each has resulted in an investigation, said Luke Zamperini, principal inspector for the city’s building and safety department.
“No sooner did the council pass this [moratorium] than these supergraphics started popping up all over the place,” he said.
Some of the new signs appear to be the creation of Michael McNeilly, the businessman affiliated with SkyTag, a company that places advertising on buildings in Los Angeles and Las Vegas. In a $500 campaign contribution to City Council President Eric Garcetti sent on June 3, McNeilly is identified as the founder of SkyTag, whose website boasts its graphics are “so LARGE they can be seen from space.”
Three of the four investigations opened in the last week focus on buildings with an image of the Statue of Liberty and the number 1969, the year McNeilly created his first mural, according to his company’s website. The images also feature McNeilly’s name.
McNeilly did not respond to calls to his office on Wednesday. But in a lawsuit filed in August, McNeilly’s company challenged Los Angeles’ outdoor sign law, saying city officials were attempting to create a monopoly for themselves by continuing to allow advertising on municipal benches, restrooms and buildings, including Los Angeles International Airport.
By allowing such exceptions to its sign laws, “the city has therefore granted itself unfettered discretion to grant or deny persons the right to engage in protected free speech through off-site signage on both public and private property,” the lawsuit states.
One McNeilly lawsuit, pursued with help from the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California, ended in a settlement in 2003 in which city officials agreed to let the equivalent of three on-site signs be placed on the west side of a Westwood office building.
Councilman Jack Weiss, whose district includes Westwood and part of Hollywood, said the city should file charges over the signs, regardless of its complicated history with McNeilly. Weiss, whose office has received complaints about six supergraphics without permits during the holiday break, called the signs outrageous and an example of “naked urban greed.”
“People shouldn’t be doing this. And the city attorney should go after them aggressively and throw the book at them,” he said.
City Atty. Rocky Delgadillo filed charges Friday against another businessman over new signs in downtown Los Angeles. In the complaint, Delgadillo said Timothy McDaniel, owner of the construction company McDaniel Inc., had played a role in the raising of three billboards without permits in the week before Christmas.
One of those went up in the parking lot of the Plumbers Union Local 78 next to the 110 Freeway. That group had been pressing city officials to allow it to place a double-sided digital billboard on its property.
In June, the union persuaded Councilman Ed Reyes to ask his fellow council members to let the digital sign go up. Although the city’s Planning Department has been reviewing the proposal, a non-digital billboard went up on the site on Dec. 23, according to officials in Delgadillo’s office.
Councilman Tom LaBonge fielded calls about the supergraphic on a 10-story office building in Hancock Park. LaBonge, whose district includes Koreatown and Hollywood, said he was worried that outdoor vinyl signs could trap office workers in cases of fire or other emergencies. “It’s like putting a tarp outside a window,” he said. “I don’t understand how the city allows this.”