AIA Asks: Is It Time to Ban Billboards?

This evening,the American Institute of Architects will host a forum debating whether Los Angeles should consider banning new billboards.  In the event announcement the AIA notes:

Even as
the City struggles to identify and regulate existing off-site signage,
it moves forward with creative sign districts and signage supplemental
use districts that add new off-site signs.  There are currently at
least three additional supplemental-use signage districts proposed in
Los Angeles. While the City seeks funds from these billboard districts
to realize important community-based projects, off-site signage
advocates justify overturning citywide ordinances limiting billboards
by pointing to the adoption of these same districts.

Put more briefly, the city has inconsistent goals and policies when it comes to controlling the amount of "offsite signage" cluttering our roadways.

The main arguments against these outdoor advertisements is the
intrusion on motorists and other street users.  Recently, news articles
began appearing because the city is allowing lighted billboards to go
up that are lighting up the inside of people’s homes.  The main
argument to keep billboards, and allow people to put up more and more
of them, is the revenue it generates for the city.

The problem with lighted billboards may be one that is too large for the city to handle by itself.  The San Jose Mercury News and New York Times have both looked at the problems created by lighted billboards in Los Angeles, and the city’s inability to do much about it.

Legal entanglements
dating back years have hampered the city’s ability to regulate outdoor
signs. In 2002, the council passed an ordinance prohibiting new
billboards and ordering an inventory of existing ones. But billboard
companies challenged the ordinance in court. In 2006 and 2007, the city
settled lawsuits with three of the largest billboard companies: CBS
Outdoor, Clear Channel Outdoor and Regency.

Under the
settlements, CBS and Clear Channel were allowed to convert as many as
850 print billboards to electronic ones. The 50 or so billboards
converted since then all have valid permits, making them legal, but
city officials say that given the terms of the settlements, the permits
had to be granted without adequate public review.

"It was probably a mistake to approve that legal settlement as it was," said Eric Garcetti, the council’s president.

sometime in the next few weeks, Garcetti said, the council will vote on
an emergency moratorium that would halt billboard conversions and new
billboard construction for six months. The lawmakers, now convinced
that the settlements were a bad idea and that they will find support
for more stringent review in existing state environmental law, would
use that time to strengthen their 2002 ordinance.

If Los Angeles were to move forward with a ban on new billboards, it wouldn’t be the first city to do so, nor would it even be the first in California.  In fact, a quick google search on "arguments against billboards" turns up hundreds of results of a debate going on nationwide, including this article from TIME Magazine from 1957.

The panel discussion begins tonight at 7 P.M. at the AIA’s Los Angeles Headquarters, 3780 Wilshire Boulevard.

Photo: Claus 707/Flickr

  • Jeffrey W. Baker

    San Francisco banned new billboards and most other new signs in 2002. You can attach certain signs to your own business, but signs not on your premises, including billboards, can’t be built. If a billboard is on the side of a building and gets torn down, it’s gone forever and can’t be rebuilt.

    I was under the impression that San Diego and San Jose had also long since banned new billboards, although there are so many cities and towns around San Jose that it’s hard to tell.

  • Jeffrey W. Baker

    P.S. the sign ban passed in SF with 79% of the vote. It’s hard to imagine that anyone, anywhere, is actually in favor of more billboards.

  • “The main arguments against these outdoor advertisements is the intrusion on motorists and other street users.” For reals? How about community blight and aesthetics – in Echo Park we have them (several of them) illegally in people’s front yards for pete’s sake – Let’s get rid of those stat. Go Garcetti – hope the lecture is good.

  • Here are photos from São Paulo’s recent billboard ban.

  • In L.A. we spend a lot of money paying various contractors and public agencies to drive around with paint guns wiping graffiti out. You would think this attitude would translate into a “no billboards” stance by our politicians as well, but clearly it doesn’t.

    Personally, I prefer the graffiti over the billboards, but I realize it is not an either or sort of decision to make.

    I think there is something encoded into L.A.’s fabric that makes top-down, commercial, speech more “important” – which is why billboards blight our city in such vast number and variety. Graffiti is a bottom-up expression of a similar attitude and desire, but it is automatically considered “blight” and subject to an East German-style cultural throttling.

    Is the anti-billboard stance a reasonable plank in L.A.’s livable streets movement?

  • Why not levy an extremely high billboard tax for advertising companies? And incur higher fines for illegally-installed billboards?

  • The problem is the billboard companies have a lot of political clout–sometimes via campaign contributions, other times by using some of their billboards to promote a politician. City Attorney Rocky Delgadillo’s cozy relationship with the industry has especially drawn fire:

    It kills me the city admits many of the billboards that litter our streets are illegal yet so far the city has been unable to even do an inventory. The billboard companies are shameless in their pursuit of keeping hold of this billion dollar cashcow.

    Los Angeles is rife with civic debacles created by the excess pull of insiders. One rumor I have heard is many years ago when the city awarded the contract for bus shelters (I’m talking back when Tom Bradley was Mayor) it went to a company owned by an ex-staffer of then Councilman Zev Yaroslavsky. The company was undercapitalized and lacked the technical expertise to handle the job. Eventually a larger company bought it. And then a yet-larger company bought that one. The contract was passed like an heirloom through a succession of entities until Viacom Decaux ended up with it. And when the city some years ago made rumblings to finally put the contract out for bid Decaux used pull to instead have a negotiated new contract for street furniture that seemingly will last forever (sort of like being an LAPD Official Police Garage– And most depressing is the result has been a poorly managed program seemingly unable to overcome the political conundrum between the anti-tax ideology of residents and the consequent need to facilitate advertising to generate the revenue to fund street improvements like bus benches. Other examples of insiders grabbing contracts and then proving their only skill is pulling strings include a non-profit that briefly was in charge of the paddle boats at MacArthur Park, a hand-to-mouth company that had a DASH contract in South L.A. and the venerable community group that for years held onto the contract with the county to run the Hahn Shuttle in the area around King/Harbor even though its competence was almost zero (we suspect the money was the near sum total of their cash flow given its decline in the years since the founder died).

    Sometimes truth, justice and the American way triumphs. And then we have other times, such as this. :-(

  • Dana,

    Thanks for laying things out like that. It has been very disappointing to see things play out like this in L.A. I don’t think any of us would mind if these insiders got paid to do work – so long as they did a good job of it.

    Where did all the competent bad guys go?

  • The only serious way to combat the proliferation of outdoor advertising in Los Angeles is through the adoption of an absolute ban on new billboards and other forms of off-site advertising. Such a ban was passed in 2002, but it contained exceptions allowing new billboards in special sign districts and redevelopment areas, and developers and sign companies have seized upon these exceptions to facilitate a surrender of the city’s visual environment to commercial advertisers. These exceptions have also undermined the city’s ability to enforce any sign regulations, as per recent court decisions. That’s why we need a new billboard ban that contains NO exceptions, anywhere, anytime, for any reason. The power of the development lobby is such that this probably isn’t possible through normal political channels, but will require a city-wide ballot initiative.

    Dennis Hathaway
    President, Coalition to Ban Billboard Blight

  • How sad billboards are under attack….just because of billboards I went to see the movie “Yes”, ordered Showtime, and started watching ‘The Starter Wife” on USA Network! Oh wait, that didn’t really happen…. :)

  • Nice article you’ve got there. Thanks a lot.

    Ferienparks Holland

  • William Board

    “Tax Billboard Act” Initiative will generate millions for the City of West Hollywood

    Tens of millions of dollars in advertising revenues are received each year by billboard companies from billboards, large screen video displays, tall walls and other off-site signs. Yet, under current law, the billboard companies pay virtually no taxes to West Hollywood for the privilege of being allowed to advertise in the city.

    For decades, the citizens of West Hollywood have been forced to live with billboards, tall walls, large screen video displays and other off-site signs, while billboard companies have received over a billion dollars in advertising revenues and West Hollywood has become the sign capitol of California. The time is now for billboard companies to pay their fair share to the City of West Hollywood for this privilege.

    This initiative would correct this inequity and provide new revenue for the City to provide added municipal services to the residents of West Hollywood. A 7% excise tax on advertising revenues received from the lease of billboards, video signs, tall walls or other off site signs in West Hollywood would be paid to the City and deposited into the General Fund for expanding City services.

    The new revenue would benefit West Hollywood in enhancing current municipal services and permit an expansion of many community projects and services, including expanding Aids/HIV treatment and prevention programs, adding community public spaces such as pocket parks and public enhancements for the new library, public safety funding for sheriff services and first responders and continued funding of cultural affairs and community events.

    Whether you love billboards or hate them, all agree that they impact the experience of living in West Hollywood and have resulted in massive financial gains to the billboard companies. In fairness, billboard companies should be required to give back a fair share of these revenues to the community through the “Tax Billboard Act” Initiative.

    Support the West Hollywood quality of life. Support the “Tax Billboard Act” Initiative.


Is It Time to Ban Billboards?

Moderated by: John Kaliski, AIA – Principal, URBAN STUDIO Panelists: Kevin E. Fry – President, Scenic America Dennis Hathaway – President, The Coalition to Ban Billboard Blight Con Howe – Managing Director of The CityView Los Angeles Fund and Former Director of Planning of the City of Los Angeles Craig Lawson – President, Craig Lawson & Co., […]

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