When Patricia Barragan opened her physical therapy practice in an office building on Santa Monica Boulevard, she picked the location in part because of the sweeping views.
With windows that look north toward the Santa Monica Mountains, the fourth-floor suite gave Barragan’s clients a calming environment -- until last month, when her landlord covered the north side of the building with a two-story “supergraphic” advertising a global bank chain.
“When I came to work after Christmas, I had this horrible orange drape that diminished the light in my activity room and my treatment room by almost 40%,” she said. “The first patients who came in at 7 o’clock said, ‘What is this? This is depressing. I don’t want to be treated in these depressing rooms.’ ”
Barragan is one of a growing number of workers furious that supergraphics -- large vinyl or plastic signs stretched across the sides of buildings -- are darkening their offices, wrecking their views and alienating their customers.
The multistory images, which can be bigger than the biggest billboard, have moved to the center of a long-running debate about outdoor advertising in Los Angeles, with at least a dozen supergraphics popping up in the month since the City Council approved a 90-day ban on new outdoor signs.
The outcry comes as the council struggles to come up with rules for regulating new outdoor advertising that won’t be struck down as a restriction of free speech. Although the fight over billboards traditionally had been waged between advertising companies and neighborhood groups, office workers have entered the fray in a noisy way.
After the supergraphic went up on her building, Barragan contacted her building manager, then her lawyer and then her councilman’s office to demand that the sign come down.
At 11600 Wilshire Blvd., dental hygienist Susan Rider complained to her building manager after a supergraphic image of the Statue of Liberty went up on the north and east sides of the five-story office building. At 10801 National Blvd., chiropractor David Allan created a crusading blog titled “10801 Take Sign Down Now” after a multistory advertisement covered the window of his fifth-floor office.
And at 6380 Wilshire Blvd., the firm known as Recon Research Corp. filed a lawsuit against its landlord last week, saying a 10-story supergraphic installed over the Christmas break transformed its office from a “conservative, prestigious environment into one that is crass and commercial.”
The supergraphic sign “has changed the character of the office property and its outward appearance such as to make it no longer suitable for the purpose for which it was leased,” wrote Alan Harris, the lawyer for Recon.
In some cases, signs went up after the City Council’s 90-day moratorium on all new signs went into effect. In others, images were posted before the ban by companies seeking to challenge the notion of city sign prohibitions.
Calls to Jamison Properties, which manages the buildings at 6380 Wilshire and 11600 Wilshire, were not returned. A representative of Cambra Realty, which owns the property at 10780 Santa Monica Blvd. where Barragan works, said its supergraphic for ING Direct would be removed “in the next couple of weeks.”
Ben Blauner, an asset manager for Cambra, said he did not know the reason for his company’s decision. But Councilman Jack Weiss said the Los Angeles Fire Department had notified the building’s owner that the sign violates safety laws.
“It just seems to me that these supergraphics can make it harder for people to get out in a fire, harder for the firefighters to get in, and can themselves catch on fire,” Weiss said. “So it’s egregious that a landlord would put his tenants in any of those situations.”
Other office workers in Weiss’ district have also been voicing their dismay.
Healthcare consultant Ben Jacobowitz said he and other tenants at 10801 National Blvd. received no warning that their windows would be covered by a giant ad for Tropicana orange juice. Tenants who once had clear views of the Getty Center now look out through screens that are, depending on the location, orange, gray or black and white, he said.
“The owner won’t talk to us,” said Jacobowitz, who works on the sixth floor. “The building manager will talk to us only to say that she understands, she’s notified the building owner and has asked us to put our complaints in writing.”
Allan, whose chiropractic office is in the same building, took stronger measures, creating a blog that targets “greedy owners and advertisers” who disregard tenant safety by putting up supergraphics. He also contacted fire inspectors to determine whether the Tropicana sign endangers tenants.
Allan said he considers himself one of the “professional little guys” harmed by advertising run amok in Los Angeles.
“I’ve never been much of an activist,” he said. “But when something’s affecting you, you want to stand up for yourself.”
The city has only limited power to regulate Allan’s building. Last summer, the advertising company World Wide Rush won a ruling that found that the city’s 2002 ban on new billboards violated the U.S. Constitution. Although that decision is being appealed, the company won an injunction to prevent the city from enforcing its ban on supergraphics at 34 buildings, including the one on National where Allan works.
Some tenants say the enormous images have harmed their day-to-day business.
Rider, the dental hygienist on Wilshire, said she relies on sunlight when deciding whether to advise patients to whiten their teeth. That task has become more difficult now that a supergraphic on the building’s east-facing side has added grainy black smudges to her windows.
“If I can’t see properly, I could be causing people to be having undue contact with a chemical,” she said.
Office workers are not the only ones trying to combat the arrival of new supergraphics. In the San Fernando Valley, neighborhood activist Gerald Silver views the signs as blight. He has called on his neighbors to boycott businesses in certain buildings on Ventura Boulevard that have multistory supergraphics.
Silver, president of the Homeowners of Encino, said he and his neighbors have lost patience with the city’s efforts against illegal signs. Even if only a few businesses are boycotted, a message will be sent, he said.
“You don’t have to shut a business down,” he said. “You just have to reduce a percentage of their business. It’s not like the economy is doing really well.”