Changing L.A.'s signs

Square one for any new effort to regulate commercial signage in Los Angeles is a ban on new billboards.

Not that a ban is the only solution or even the best one, and The Times does not call for an absolute, permanent moratorium on all new signs. But an important starting point for any discussion of a new sign ordinance, including the proposal that a City Council committee takes up today for the first time, is the acknowledgment that a ban is possible, would be legal and, if City Hall shows the will, enforceable.

New commercial billboards are banned in four states, in numerous small California cities such as Santa Anita and Santa Monica but also large ones such as San Diego, and even in Houston, a city well known among planners and real estate lawyers for its rejection of most other land-use restrictions.

Some Los Angeles officials warn that a new ban would bring new lawsuits, and they cite the example of a billboard company’s suit alleging that the city violated the 1st Amendment by granting advertising rights at bus shelters while limiting more traditional billboards. But it’s important to finish the story -- the city won the suit on appeal.

Even in that case, the legal problems began when the city allowed exceptions. Laws permitting new signs of one kind but not another, or one type of message but not another, or located in one part of the city but not another, invite 1st Amendment challenge. Any deviation from an absolute ban -- a deviation such as the sign districts proposed in the draft ordinance approved earlier this year by the Planning Commission -- must be worded with the utmost care and with the will to back it up in court.

Some people -- not just those who work for billboard companies -- like commercial signs and want more of them. In Koreatown, business owners complain that, without flashing signs, their district is missing the verve and vibe of Seoul. In the central city, political leaders say the no-sign aesthetic belongs to a 20th century Midwestern sensibility shared only by members of a shrinking demographic group and fails to reflect what a resident would consider sophisticated in Mexico City. They argue that today’s younger Los Angeles residents want a more urban feel and, just as important, the parks and building projects that could be funded only by steady streams of revenue from special uses -- such as billboard districts.

West Hollywood is in fact a vibrant and at the same time livable city and has secured for itself an identity with the famous displays of lighted Sunset Strip signs, grandfathered into the cityscape from its days as an unincorporated area untouched by L.A. regulation. Hollywood Boulevard could have some of that glitz as well and so, perhaps, could portions of Wilshire. The proposed ordinance delineates other areas that would be eligible to become billboard districts, including portions of Crenshaw, Ventura and Topanga Canyon boulevards and -- significantly -- some stretches of freeway currently off-limits to signs. The districts cover a lot of ground, but if the proposal becomes law in its current form and is enforced, new billboards would be permitted in fewer parts of the city than they are currently.

But just because a Koreatown club owner wants billboards, that doesn’t mean the people who live in the district want them. Nor should Angelenos automatically accept the assertion that the city’s future leaders and tastemakers are clamoring for more billboards. In adopting a moratorium on new fast-food outlets in parts of South Los Angeles last year, some City Council members asked why it makes sense to allow one drive-through after another in one part of town, while other parts reject them as blight. Why, by the same token, should some parts of town be considered open ranges for another type of visual blight?

Billboard districts can be a valuable addition to Los Angeles, but the City Council should accept them only if there are procedures in place for public input and review, and if the districts become a substitute for, and not simply an addition to, the blight zones that sign companies have created by flouting current law.

Council members also should expect careful scrutiny of any provisions that give them, the Planning Department or the Community Redevelopment Agency power to approve billboards as components of development projects. Streams of revenue from those signs, ostensibly to fund parks or community programs, can too easily become slush funds for elected officials.

And, most important, City Hall has lost its right to promise residents that this time, unlike before, enforcement will be strong and illegal billboards will be removed. The city vowed seven years ago to inventory all billboards, legal and illegal, and still has not done it. The council has failed to provide sufficient funding for billboard inspectors, and inspections by the Department of Building and Safety are too slow.

Before the city permits any new billboards or draws any new districts, it must demonstrate its ability and its will to enforce current law, cite and dismantle illegal signs and complete and publicly post its sign inventory. Absent that showing of good faith, over the course of a year or two, no Angeleno can be expected to see any new law as anything other than further concessions to the billboard industry.

If the council can’t develop an enforceable ordinance? Back to square one. And square one for any new effort to regulate commercial signage in Los Angeles is a ban on new billboards.