L.A. billboards’ digital divide
To community leaders who see digital billboards as both visual blight and the tangible result of arrogant power plays by two mammoth advertising companies, the proper response is clear: The more than 100 electronic signs glaring across Los Angeles have to be switched off. Or even removed. After all, city law banned such signs, and a 2006 settlement agreement that allowed the two firms to install them anyway has been struck down in court. First comply with the law, residents say, then we can talk about moving forward with fair and enforceable laws enabling erection of some digital billboards in some places. Perhaps.
To those two companies, the next step is also clear, but it looks quite different. They intend to keep most of their signs turned on, and they want to know which and how many conventional billboards they must continue to take down and which ones they can continue to convert to digital. After all, previous city law notwithstanding, Clear Channel Outdoor and CBS Outdoor point out, the City Council and mayor approved their conversions, and based on that they invested millions of dollars in construction and programming. So now, the companies say to the city, if you want more in exchange for doing what you already explicitly gave us permission to do, tell us what it is and we’ll talk.
The challenge for the city’s Billboard and Visual Environment Visioning Group is, in a sense, to simultaneously take heed of and ignore the stark difference between these two starting points and to recommend to the City Council’s planning committee a path forward for a workable billboard program in Los Angeles. Any discussion that doesn’t consider the gulf between the two fairly intransigent positions isn’t reality based, and any that does may be doomed.
It’s a good example of how a bad decision, made years ago, hovers stubbornly over the present and the future. And, as a result, it’s a good example of how Los Angeles government too often goes astray.
The visioning group was called together by city planners trying their best to figure out what to do next. These are the kinds of discussions that require all interests to come forward and air their views. In an understandable effort to encourage candor, some suggested holding the sessions outside the glare and scrutiny of public hearings. But this is official city business and a key component in shaping policy. So do open meetings laws apply? There were agendas, but one would be hard put to find them posted. No one did much to call attention to the meetings, but members of the public who learned of them weren’t turned away. There were facilitators to keep the discussions moving forward, but they encountered an inevitable tension between their mission to allow all views to be aired and their desire to prevent the sides from locking horns.
And there aren’t merely two sides. Within the billboard industry, in addition to Clear Channel and CBS, there is a company that took down some conventional billboards as part of that 2006 settlement agreement — the one that has since been invalidated in court — and simply didn’t get around to converting any signs to digital. For that company, the status quo is as unacceptable as it is for the community groups. If the other two companies get to keep digital signs, shouldn’t the third get to put some up as well? But that would mean expanding the inventory of digital signs; the community groups’ goal is to reduce or eliminate it.
Community groups are not all on the same page either. Most object to the all-night glare and continual change in light and color, as messages switch every few seconds. Some groups are prepared to accept the signs in non-residential areas, but given Los Angeles’ particular development patterns that’s not as simple as it may sound. Along Wilshire Boulevard, for example, much as along other major corridors, high-rise commercial districts are only half a block deep and are backed with single-family homes, and an LED billboard positioned to face traffic shines almost directly into a bedroom window a few hundred feet away.
Some groups are willing to accept them anyway in exchange for community benefits, or perhaps a cut of revenue, but that raises questions: Must areas of the city that are already struggling have to accept digital billboards merely to get their fair share of parks, or even services like street cleaning? How much of the revenue should stay in the community accepting the sign, and how much should be shared with areas that need resources but are not commercially viable to sign companies? Is a community’s visual environment now a commodity to be sold, traded or ransomed? The discussion reopens festering disputes over similar attempts to divvy up burdens and benefits, such as the payments, known as Quimby fees, that developers must pay for parks as mitigation for building. Who should get to control those funds — the local City Council member? The neighborhood council? A city department?
And to the discussion of community benefits, add the straight-faced assertion by the billboard companies that their signs are, themselves, the community benefits, providing free space for public service announcements, emergency bulletins and the like. That argument has been greeted by community groups with everything from chuckles to unprintable invective.
Meanwhile, city officials grappling with deep budget problems are hoping to get their hands on a steady stream of billboard payments for the general fund.
There are other issues. If city leaders promote Los Angeles as a green, energy-efficient city, how is it that we’re even having a discussion about electronic signs that suck up huge amounts of electricity? Do these signs have an impact on traffic safety? And that leads us back to square one:
How do law and policy get made in this city? It’s a troubling question and the answer is still being shaped. It is within the realm of possibility that all interests and parties will walk away satisfied. But it’s a long shot.
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