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L.A. weighs changes in billboard law

When Los Angeles tried to crack down on billboards in 2002, politicians agreed that there was at least one place where oversized signs could keep going up: Hollywood.

Even as they attempted to ban new outdoor advertising in much of the city, officials said Hollywood, with its noisy nightspots and gawking tourists, was a good fit for colorful pitches for soda, cologne, movies and alcohol.

Seven years later, the Hollywood sign district is viewed as a disappointment by a growing number of neighborhood activists and city policy makers who say the area has been inundated by new oversized signs -- with and without permits -- and by lawsuits seeking to block enforcement of the sign laws.

“It was a good idea but terrible in practice,” said Madeline Janis, an appointee of Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa at the Community Redevelopment Agency, one of several city departments that review sign applications.

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Hollywood’s sign district is under the microscope now that the City Council is weighing a complicated plan to overhaul laws regulating the lucrative outdoor advertising industry. The proposal, which comes up for a vote on Tuesday, would make it possible for the council to create sign districts in up to 21 neighborhoods, including Koreatown, Westwood, Universal City, Encino, Van Nuys, Boyle Heights and around Cedars-Sinai Medical Center.

The Planning Commission forwarded the draft sign law to the council last month with three of its nine members dissenting, largely because of fears about more districts.

Although the law would ban new billboards in much of Los Angeles, Planning Commissioner Mike Woo warned that the smaller sign districts would mean “open season” for new billboards and supergraphics, multistory images that can cover one or more sides of a building.

“I consider the Hollywood sign district to be a real fiasco,” said Woo, a former councilman who represented Hollywood from 1985 to 1993. “It has resulted in a proliferation of signs, many of them with no relevance to the unique quality, theme or character of Hollywood.”

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Redevelopment officials have approved 11 sign agreements in Hollywood over the last four years, giving permission for 23 multistory supergraphics, four double-sided roof signs and two electronic message displays.

In exchange, property owners agreed to pay fees and remove 12,000 square feet of signage, or the equivalent of 18 billboards, according to redevelopment officials.

Even with those agreements, redevelopment officials found 15 to 20 supergraphics without permits in Hollywood just three months ago. The agency also identified three cases in which the city had given written permission for new signs, only to find that property owners had put up additional outdoor ads without permits.

The result has been towering images of Ciroc vodka, the revamped Pepsi logo and a close-up bikini cleavage shot used by the Travel Channel.

The transformation has alarmed residents. Duke Russell, who grew up in Hollywood, said families are being inundated by advertising messages, which are now incorporated into the architecture of new condominiums, apartments and the W hotel on Hollywood Boulevard.

“The clutter is beyond belief,” said Russell, a retired electrician who now lives in Larchmont Village. “I cannot drive anywhere in Hollywood without seeing these signs.”

Then there are the lawsuits. SkyTag, a Beverly Hills company that boasts that its images are “so large they can be seen from space,” persuaded a judge to shield six Hollywood buildings from enforcement of the city’s sign law. Meanwhile, City Hall lobbyist Ben Reznik sued the city on behalf of the Roosevelt Hotel, a historic monument on Hollywood Boulevard whose owners want to keep a supergraphic on the building’s east-facing side.

Defenders of the proposed ordinance say the current billboard law already allows the council to create new sign districts, albeit in a much larger number of neighborhoods. Backers of the rewritten sign law also said that any company that wants to put up a new sign in a billboard zone will be required to take down another one elsewhere.

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Council President Eric Garcetti said the issues in Hollywood are simply a symptom of a city struggling to enforce existing billboard laws. By imposing fines of up to $12,000 per day for first-time violators, the new law will address signs without permits not only in Hollywood but across Los Angeles, he said.

“It’s not [a question of] do we have a district or not” in Hollywood, Garcetti said. “It’s do we have an ordinance that strengthens the penalties against illegal signs. Because most of the problems in Hollywood have been illegal signs.”

Garcetti and his colleagues moved to overhaul the city’s sign law last year after facing voter outrage over a series of lawsuit settlements approved by the council in 2005 and 2006. Those agreements, approved unanimously, delivered a broad array of concessions to four outdoor advertising companies that had challenged the city’s 2002 billboard law.

The settlements gave three of the four -- CBS Outdoor, Clear Channel Outdoor and Regency Outdoor -- permission to convert up to 900 billboards to digital formats, with illuminated images that change every few seconds. As new digital signs began going up, neighborhood groups in Silver Lake, Westwood and elsewhere lashed out at the council, saying it had granted the billboard industry carte blanche for hundreds of visually intrusive signs.

One industry expert estimated that the sign settlement would give Clear Channel alone an additional $40 million per year in digital sign revenue. That estimate, based on industry figures, covers only 83 signs that have already switched to digital formats, not the scores of signs that Clear Channel wants to convert, said attorney Phil Recht, who is suing the city on behalf of a smaller billboard company that failed to secure a settlement.

Recht said the billboard settlements also contained a little-known concession allowing an unknown number of unpermitted or illegally enlarged billboards to be grandfathered in as legal.

“The companies that represent 90% of the signs were essentially given protection from enforcement” under the settlement, Recht said. “And then in addition, they were given this extraordinarily valuable right -- the right to go digital.”

By rewriting the outdoor sign law, city lawyers now hope to limit the digital conversions to the current sign districts: one in Hollywood and two in downtown Los Angeles. Digital signs would also be possible in any sign district created in future years.

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Although any new sign district would require additional study and another council vote, neighborhood groups have voiced anxiety over the number of areas eligible in the proposed ordinance, including stretches of Ventura, Van Nuys and Wilshire boulevards.

The law is also likely to draw a challenge from companies that have not finished installing the digital signs that were permitted under the settlement agreements. Lobbyist Damian Jones, whose firm represents Clear Channel, CBS and Lamar Outdoor, would not say whether a lawsuit is planned but signaled that his clients have big problems with the proposal.

“We believe there are a number of legal issues in their ordinance that we will have to address at some point,” he said.

Councilman Tom LaBonge, who represents part of Hollywood, has asked his colleagues to support a billboard plan that would allow new sign districts in only one part of the city -- downtown.

LaBonge also said parts of Hollywood are “on the verge of being overwhelmed” by outdoor advertising.

“It will overrun us if we don’t put a check on it,” he added.

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david.zahniser@latimes.com


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