Council sees MTA dollar signs

For decades, Glendale has tried to clear billboards from its skyway, but now officials in the cash-strapped city may be open to the advertisements in exchange for extra revenue.

The change of heart comes as the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority plans to install two digital billboards near the Ventura (134) Freeway and San Fernando Road.

There's little Glendale can do to stop it, so the city might as well make money off it, officials said.

“We need money today; gosh, who doesn't?” said Councilman Dave Weaver. “This is a way that we can realize some income.”

Dissatisfied with the MTA proposal, City Council members on Tuesday suggested officials draft a revenue-sharing agreement for the city to build two digital billboards, with the MTA getting a third along the city's main freeways. That scenario could generate $1.7 million in revenue annually for the city.

The council approved reviewing that scenario about an hour before approving a fiscal year 2012-13 budget that closed a $15.4-million shortfall.

While the MTA doesn't have to give Glendale a share of its revenue from the double-facing signs — or ask for permission to build them — city officials said the agency typically collaborates with local governments. Glendale's position is also helped by the fact that Councilman Ara Najarian is a member of MTA's board of directors.

“Clearly, the agency wants to maintain good relations with those cities from which their directors come,” Najarian said at the meeting.

The MTA proposed two signs to the north and south of the 134 Freeway near the railroad tracks that border Los Angeles, but council members said they preferred one sign for the agency south of the freeway.

Two MTA billboards would bring about $250,000 to city coffers, far less than the preferred option.

City officials don't know yet whether the MTA would be willing to lose one of itssigns, but a spokesman for the agency, Dave Sotero, said Thursday that the county was open to working with Glendale on a proposal.

“We are just in the early days of this issue, and we look forward to working cooperatively with the city to review all the alternatives and options,” Sotero said.

There could also be a second city-owned sign along the Golden State (5) Freeway near ABC7 studios, which already exists. However, Clear Channel's contract to keep that sign expires next year. The sign isn't digital, but that could change.

The billboards could advertise Glendale's largest tax generators, such as the Americana at Brand, Glendale Galleria and the Brand Boulevard of Cars, officials said. It could also show public art and public service announcements.

In the 1990s, the City Council denied a request by the Brand Boulevard of Cars to install a sign near the intersection of the 5 and 134 freeways advertising car dealerships. At the time, residents and business owners on both sides of the debate packed council chambers.

On Tuesday, Councilwoman Laura Friedman said she worried residents near the train tracks and north of the freeway may rally against a digital billboard and urged city officials to meet with community members to discuss their potential concerns.

Najarian said he didn't think the billboards would negatively affect the neighborhoods, but rather enhance the area by distracting people from blight along the Los Angeles border.

“This isn't a peeling McDonald's billboard that you see on the way to Vegas,” he said.

The brightness may slightly exceed that of a video game on a TV screen at night and be five times as bright during the day.

Community Development Director Hassan Haghani said the city would strive to make the billboards visually pleasing.

Officials don't plan to pay for the digital billboards to be placed in city right of ways, but rather would partner with an advertising company to shoulder the costs and pay Glendale a share of the revenue.

City officials plan to present their proposal to the MTA and come back with more details at a later time.

“It's a tremendous financial opportunity for us,” Mayor Frank Quintero said.

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