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Billion-dollar Wilshire Grand project could light up downtown Los Angeles with ads

A pair of new Los Angeles skyscrapers could dramatically alter the lights of downtown, reigniting the city’s long-running fight over outdoor advertising.

If developers of the proposed billion-dollar Wilshire Grand project have their way, such colorful images as stars, butterflies and waterfalls would fade in and out along the upper floors of both their planned 45-story hotel and their 65-floor office tower, thanks to thousands of tiny lights embedded in the buildings’ surface.

Both skyscrapers would see their lowest 10 floors emblazoned with an array of commercial images, from flashing digital signs to streaming “news ribbons.”

Supporters say the plan, modeled after similar technology on the Chanel building in Tokyo and the Cira Centre in Philadelphia, would bring energy and vibrancy to a stretch of downtown — the Figueroa Corridor — that already is being remade by the L.A. Live complex a few blocks to the south.

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Opponents say the plan would reopen the way for turning high-rise towers into massive versions of the electronic billboards that have generated protests in many parts of the city.

The debate and lobbying at City Hall are scheduled to come to a key City Council vote Tuesday on allowing the lighted signage. On Friday, the council unanimously agreed to subsidize construction by waiving up to $79 million in hotel bed taxes.

Korean Air, which owns the project and is backed by business groups, unions and high-profile politicians, has the clear upper hand.

But allowing such a vast array of graphics has unsettled some officials, including Planning Commission President Bill Roschen, who has made a living designing buildings with billboards attached to them.

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“It is on such a radically different scale than anything we’ve seen in the city,” he said. The vote is not just about a specific signage proposal, he said. “It’s about a city skyline.” The city shouldn’t allow light emitting diodes, or LEDs, on dozens of stories of any skyscraper until it has a plan for regulating such technology citywide, he added.

The debate also involves differing visions of how downtown Los Angeles will evolve. Nearby Grand Avenue, with its museums and concert halls, is being remade as L.A.'s cultural center. Figueroa Street has been steadily moving in the direction of the Las Vegas strip.

Once the council casts a series of votes on whether to create a new sign district around the Wilshire Grand, Korean Air has promised to spend $400,000 to study ways to extend the district south on Figueroa to L.A. Live, which already is emblazoned with spotlights and enormous animated digital signs.

That effort threatens to rekindle the long-running City Hall war over outdoor signs.

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For years, as huge billboards proliferated across the city, many neighborhood leaders viewed local politicians as too willing to bend to the wishes of the outdoor advertising industry, which has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to elect favored candidates.

Then, in 2009, newly elected City Atty. Carmen Trutanich began cracking down on illegal signs. Last year, he began tossing some building owners in jail, alleging that they had covered buildings with unpermitted supergraphics.

Since then, the billboard wars have been quiescent. The fight over Figueroa appears to be the first stirring of a new round.

The proposal put forward by Korean Air and its subsidiary company, Hanjin International Corp., would be visually dramatic. The lower floors of the hotel, planned to open in 2015, and the office tower that is scheduled to be finished two years later, would include an array of animated images, including digital signs that change as frequently as every eight seconds.

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The upper 10% of each skyscraper would display digital signs that rotate the names of the project’s owner and major tenants. Covering multiple stories of the buildings between the 10th floor and the top would be graphics created with LEDs. The lights would be allowed on 18% of the upper-floor exteriors, according to the company’s representatives.

Those lights, spaced six inches apart, would be allowed only between windows, not directly over them. They also could not be used to form words or any kind of advertising logo, such as a Nike swoosh or a Coca-Cola bottle.

Ayahlushim Getachew, senior vice president for Thomas Properties Group, Korean Air’s partner on the project, said that type of lighting would be perfect for Figueroa Street, home not only to L.A. Live but also Staples Center, the Convention Center and possibly a new football stadium. Combined with various forms of digital advertising on the lower floors, the technology would lure pedestrians and make Figueroa Street a more vibrant tourist destination, she said.

“When you build new buildings today, this is technology that you have to embrace, because this is what’s happening all over the world,” she said.

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Among the most aggressive advocates for the plan is Councilwoman Jan Perry, a 2013 mayoral candidate.

After the Planning Commission refused to allow architectural lighting on the project’s upper floors, Perry persuaded her colleagues to reverse that decision. She also persuaded council members to triple the amount of digital advertising allowed by the commission on a portion of the project that extends as high as 150 feet above the street.

Perry, who represents part of downtown, said she addressed the complaints of neighboring property owners by obtaining a reduction in the brightness of some signs. She argued that the public would have nothing to fear from the electronic display on the building’s upper stories.

Having the lights “be shiny, blinding, hideous and ugly would negate the whole purpose of putting them there,” she added.

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At night, signs on the lower floors of the Wilshire Grand complex would be limited to between 600 and 800 candelas per square meter, a measurement of brightness used by the Planning Department. By contrast, oversized signs at L.A. Live exceed 2,100 candelas, according to a city analysis.

On the upper floors, the colorful images would be capped in nighttime hours at 120 candelas, city officials said. By comparison, the crown of the nearby Library Tower is 66 candelas.

Those restrictions do not reassure Dennis Hathaway, president of the Coalition to Ban Billboard Blight, who said he worries that the upper floor lighting scheme would eventually be transformed into hard-sell advertising. He also complained that public hearings on the project included no video simulation to show how the architectural lighting would work on dozens of upper floors.

“It’s obvious that some of those council people think it’s just some lighting outlining the building. I don’t think they have a clue,” Hathaway said.

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Getachew argued that although a switch to advertising might one day be contemplated, such a request would need to be vetted by the Planning Commission and council.

“One day we might not be the owners of the site anymore. And if that’s so, that’s what somebody else might want to do,” she said.

david.zahniser@latimes.com


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