[Note following New York Times article, as well]
Digital Billboards Become a Bohemian Blasphemy
Silver Lake, Hollywood, the Valley and Westside take on City Hall's anti-green transformation of LA By Christine Pelisek
published: November 20, 2008
Silver Lake resident Ric Montejano was walking Sparky, his Chihuahua-mix, when he came upon something that cut him to his "very soul.” Two blocks from his place, on the corner of Silver Lake Boulevard and Effie Street, near a sleek little Italian café and a pricey wine shop, a massive, blazing digital billboard flashed huge images of Sean Combs in his skivvies, a grinning Ellen DeGeneres and an KNBC promo. “I immediately started yelling,” says Montejano, who‟s lived in the area since 1972. “Six months down the line there will be three. Then six. There will be no stopping it.”
; Ted Soqui
; Ted Soqui
The former flower child, who loves the upscale, yet still bohemian, community east of Hollywood, decided to protest. Shirtless and sporting a fedora, Montejano picketed with
Sparky, hoisting up placards reading: “Honk if You Hate the Billboard,” “This Ain‟t the Strip!” and “Not in my Front Yard.”
Overnight, somebody scrawled across the billboard-in-question: “We Hate this Billboard.
Take it down.” A record number of calls poured in to the local grass-roots civic group the
Silver Lake Neighborhood Council, and phones started ringing downtown at the offices
of L.A. City Council President Eric Garcetti. The callers were furious about what City Hall had peddled as almost routine billboard “modernizations,” which didn‟t sound like more than a perfunctory buffing.
Quickly, the Silver Lake sign — from Clear Channel Outdoor advertising — became the
biggest issue to hit the local neighborhood council in its sometimes-roiling five-year history. “We hate it,” says Laura Dwan, co-chair of the Silver Lake Neighborhood
Council. “It went up very suddenly, with no notice to the community, whatsoever.”
Hating it didn‟t particularly matter. It turned out that Montejano‟s original fear was true. Hundreds more of these unavoidably intense new ad displays are coming to local streets, and almost no part of L.A. will be spared. The LED billboard in Silver Lake is among at least 50 such displays, each containing 449,280 bulbs, erected in the first phase of a move to proliferate more than 877 billboards, from Los Feliz to West Hills to San Pedro to Boyle Heights.
Many Angelenos say they appeared out of nowhere — a reasonable reaction since there
has not been a minute of public debate over whether Los Angeles residents want to live
with them. They were instead hurriedly approved by Garcetti and his council colleagues on September 13, 2006. On that day, the 15-member L.A. City Council eagerly handed the big outdoor ad corporations an almost-ludicrously profitable deal: the use of several hundred existing billboards in L.A as the canvases on which to mount all those very tiny, very hot, blinking bulbs.
Each new sign is capable of pulling in $735,000 in annual gross ad revenue, with a top monthly intake of $128,000 for a single heavily booked, LED display. Thanks to the Council‟s action, signed several days later without any challenge by Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, the huge billboard firms stand to reap a windfall of up to $1 billion in ad revenue each year from the 800-plus digital displays, according to L.A. Weekly
City Hall‟s take for granting this crass new form of clutter: about $100 per billboard. Yet, as a mounting tide of critics notes, the damage to the city is hard to understate. A study by the U.S. Green Building Council in Texas found that the yearly carbon consumption fron a single digital billboard is enough to power 13 homes. Beyond excessive power usage, the light pollution these signs emit is so intense that, for instance, one billboard that was erected this year — near Topanga Canyon and Victory boulevards
in the San Fernando Valley — can be plainly seen by hikers on Top o‟ Topanga‟s scenic
overlook, four miles away.
Drivers on La Brea Avenue report being mesmerized by three billboards flashing high-intensity images into their faces near Pico, Olympic and Melrose boulevards. Kevin Glynn, a member of the Miracle Mile Residents Association and MidCity West
Neighborhood Council, says, “It's just a matter of time before somebody is run over by a driver bedazzled by the graphics. They're really hideous and cheap. Where are the billboard taggers when we need them?”
The searingly intense signage is invading private homes. Venice resident Mindy Taylor-Ross has combated the glare on a nightly basis for the last six months, ever since a digital billboard appeared on the corner of Superba Avenue and Lincoln Boulevard, around the corner from her cozy bungalow.
She‟s amazed that her own councilman, Bill Rosendahl, voted for the 2006 deal that utterly fails to protect people inside their own homes. “It flashes through my window all night long,” Taylor-Ross says, invading her privacy, even her thoughts. “My bedroom and bathroom change color and intensity with the billboard. I can see it every night in bed.”
Worst of all, City Hall‟s most powerful people cannot tell her why this is so.
In interviews with L.A. Weekly, elected leaders paint a picture of confusion and ignorance that led to their 2006 unanimous vote to grant broad new rights to the digital-ad companies. Some City Council members, seven of whom, along with Villaraigosa, are seeking re-election March 3, say they have no recollection of why they agreed to the dramatic digital makeover of the city‟s streets.
Hollywood-area Councilman Tom LaBonge says he is trying to retrace his steps: “I am
looking at my daily calendar for that day. I don‟t recall it being a lengthy discussion at all,” such as the council often engages in over matters its members do find important “like an accident with a fire truck, or a police matter.” Asked to consider jumping into a new form of mass advertising that affects hundreds of thousands of city residents, LaBonge says, “We just took it, and obviously many of us regret it. It seems like this city has never had a successful strategy with billboards.”
Council member Dennis Zine is equally clueless about what happened that day. “I can‟t recall back that far,” he says. “When we discussed digital, I don‟t think anyone had a clear idea of what it was about. It was new to me.”
Sounding like a small-town denizen bewildered by newfangled technology, Zine adds, “I don‟t know if any of us saw how bright they would be. It‟s a whole new world. I had never seen it before, so I don‟t know how we would have known what it is. I thought it would be one advertisement on the board.”
When L.A. Weekly told Zine that, beyond that failure, the Council approved specific wording that allows digital billboards to be called mere “modernizations” — and thus not
subject to basic environmental review or zoning restrictions — he openly scoffed, “It is a
major change, not a minor alteration. It‟s like having a wagon versus a car!”
City Attorney Rocky Delgadillo played a key role in bringing the deal to the Council two years ago. But much of the responsibility also lies with Councilman Garcetti, the fresh-faced enviro who runs the council with a strong hand, pushes hard for unanimous votes, and rewards his favored members with plum committee assignments.
Garcetti, who for five years has tooled around L.A. in an EV1 electric car, long ignored criticism of the sweetheart deal he helped to push through. Despite outcry from Valley, Hollywood and Westside residents, it wasn‟t until a few weeks ago, amidst the erupting anger in Silver Lake — in a neighborhood not far from Garcetti‟s own, where he has
many friends — that Garcetti, a billboard enabler, began to question himself. “It was probably a mistake," Garcetti told The New York Times on Nov. 5. A week later,
he went further, telling L.A. Weekly," It was a really bad decision," in which he was
"blinded" by a promise that some illegal billboards in his own area, Echo Park, would be removed.
In mid-November, under a hail of public criticism, the city Planning Commission backed a six-month moratorium to halt the 800 digital billboards still to come. But even the moratorium is being watered down, freighted with 26 special "exceptions." Although the City Council is expected to vote on the moratorium soon, LaBonge admits that disgusted residents in many neighborhoods have made it clear that digital billboards “have
absolutely been rejected by the people.”
Not that it matters. Because the Council approved the LED deal without understanding what it said or meant, LaBonge concedes, “We did lose our ability to control proliferation. And I was part of the team that lost the ability because of the settlement.”
How is it possible that commercial advertising that can change a bedroom‟s color scheme or be viewed for miles has no “environmental impact”? How could a purportedly green mayor and City Council dominated by “green” politicians have allowed such an anti-
The answer is a tale of incompetence on the part of city officials, and arrogance on the part of billboard companies that hammered away at local laws using top legal guns like First Amendment guru Laurence Tribe. And it‟s complicated by the old story of money, in the form of campaign contributions from the billboard companies to every single elected official involved. Villaraigosa, Delgadillo and Garcetti thought they could play nice, cutting a deal with the big boys of billboard advertising and come out ahead. A growing chorus of critics now says they were wrong.
For weeks this fall, Garcetti seemed stunned by what he and the City Council had unleashed. Long a backer of supersized outdoor advertising, Garcetti suddenly switched sides. Pilloried by residents of Silver Lake, he wrote a motion asking Delgadillo and the
Department of Building and Safety to pursue environmental and legal options regarding the Silver Lake sign, and asked Delgadillo to explore avenues to limit billboard blight in residential neighborhoods. He also contacted Clear Channel, and later informed Silver Lake residents that the company agreed to dim the Silver Lake Boulevard billboard in the evening, and completely turn it off at midnight.
But by the time the powerful City Council president had taken an interest, it was two years too late. Residents want the signs gone, but an estimated 50 recently switched-on LED displays — the behemoth at the intersection of Topanga Canyon and Victory
boulevards that can be seen from a Santa Monica Mountains overlook; or a piercing sign that floods a bedroom in Cahuenga Pass — are almost certainly here to stay.
They are unaffected by the six-month moratorium now under consideration. Legal experts say that the eyesore will loom over charming Silver Lake Boulevard for years. And Garcetti is already lowering expectations, using the term "extremist" to describe any plan to actually ban LED billboards.
Last April, L.A. Weekly revealed in its cover story “Billboards Gone Wild,” a long parade
of ill-fated choices that has turned Los Angeles into the center of the illegal billboard industry in the United States. Today, 11,000 billboards bristle along L.A.‟s boulevards, streets and avenues, 4,000 of them illegal, some possibly unsafe.
Few environmentalists or anti-clutter activists trust Villaraigosa, Delgadillo or Garcetti to hold tough, once the proposed moratorium ends in mid-2009. For years, their efforts to address L.A.‟s worsening clutter have sputtered and backfired, including Garcetti‟s televised — and, it turns out, hollow — public vow two years ago to remove 15 illegal
billboards on Echo Park Boulevard not far from his own "green" home recently featured in Dwell magazine. He has managed to remove just two.
Other cities, like Seattle, Houston and Philadelphia, have cleaned up billboard blight,
wiping out the visual pollution and creating attractive boulevards and neighborhoods. Not Los Angeles. Current and past mayors and city councils have continually capitulated to pressure from billboard interests — but even more so since the firms hauled L.A. into
court in 2002 over a modest $314 inspection fee the city hoped to collect. The money was to be spent determining the locations of all 4,000 illegal billboards, then take them down. The fee was fought hard through the courts by Clear Channel Outdoor, CBS Outdoor, Regency Outdoor and Vista Media, but ultimately a federal Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit agreed that the big firms had failed to show how a small fee would cause them “constitutional harm.”
The 2004 9th Circuit ruling was a major victory for people who were sick of L.A.‟s ugly, ad-cluttered neighborhoods, and its singular reputation as the center of the illegal billboard industry. Neighborhood leaders eagerly waited for City Hall to release a
document identifying the 7,000 legal and 4,000 lawless billboards, whose locations were
known only to the advertising firms.
But then, something strange, and still widely misunderstood, occurred. Delgadillo, a major recipient of billboard-company largesse during his campaign for office, having beat the billboard giants in the 9th Circuit ruling, two years later inexplicably agreed to “settlement” meetings with the companies‟ high-powered attorneys.
Nobody — not Villaraigosa, Garcetti or any of the other City Hall politicians who have taken money from outdoor advertisers or received free campaign billboard ads from them — publicly questioned Delgadillo‟s behavior. He brought to the City Council a
“settlement” he had hammered out with Clear Channel Outdoor and CBS Outdoor. The odd deal, never debated by the neighborhoods it would affect, was quickly accepted by Garcetti and the council, and signed by Villaraigosa.
Today, there is little disagreement that it was a major capitulation to the billboard giants, unparalled in the United States. Yet Garcetti is still confused, claiming a few weeks ago
on KPPC radio that the settlement allowing digital conversions was a result of the city losing its case in court.)
In fact, the city won. (Garcetti now tells the Weekly, "it is embarrassing" that he, the
Council, Villaraigosa and Delgadillo all settled, knowing they had won in court. The settlement requires Clear Channel Outdoor and CBS Outdoor to each take down 3 percent, or just 49 of their 1,657 and 1,628 signs, respectively, and to provide City Hall with a list revealing all billboard locations so building and safety inspectors can begin a long delayed inspection effort. The firms also agreed to pay a tiny fee every three years: $186 per existing traditional (not digital) billboard — a rate curiously knocked down
from the hard-fought fee of $314. For doing all this, the companies got a favor back: the right to “digitally modify” hundreds of traditional billboards.
It was all explained in a two-page report handed out to council members and unanimously approved. But none of the requirements came with any teeth. None of the billboards were removed, and the list of thousands of illegal signs was never forthcoming.
No fees were paid. No inspection program began.
Where was the City Council in all of this? Its members are the highest paid City Council
in the nation at a salary of $171,648 a year. Each has a personal staff of about 20 aides , yet they even failed to restrict the neighborhoods or locations where the outdoor displays could go. As a result, the LEDs can be erected anywhere the billboard firms want to place them.
"There is no massive conspiracy of billboard companies owning Council members," Garcetti insists. He says City Attorney Delgadillo's staff barely explained the details to the Council, and dramatically de-emphasized the digital makeover to come. Garcetti concedes, "I don't want to make too many excuses," but adds "you have to rely on your lawyers."
The loose terms negotiated by Delgadillo placed the outdoor advertising companies firmly in charge of L.A.‟s street-scape. Dennis Hathaway, president of the Coalition to
Ban Billboard Blight (www.banbillboardblight.org), recalls how: “The agenda item
referred only to „conferring with legal counsel,‟ and no member of the public would have known that a public discussion would be held, or what the subject of that discussion might be.”
The Council and Villaraigosa had plenty of chances to understand what they were doing. Two months later, in November 2006, following furious complaints from anti-clutter activists over the deal, Delgadillo returned to the Council, asking it to approve a nearly identical deal allowing a smaller firm, Regency Outdoor, to also spread LED billboards around the city. Again, it could “modernize” 38 billboards if it removed just five illegal ones for which the firm had never been fined.
On November 28, very little debate took place at the brief meeting in the marbled City Council chambers. Garcetti actually declared that it was “refreshing” to have had a
discussion of the billboard settlement in public. Reminded of that short Garcetti speech, Hathaway says, “He either didn‟t notice or didn‟t care that no members of the public
were able to add their voices to a debate on a matter of intense interest in many of the city‟s neighborhoods.”
As feared by critics, the deal helped only the billboard giants. The city‟s Department of Building and Safety never launched the program to charge billboard fees and remove illegal ones. But the companies were prompt about enriching themselves. This year, digital signage began popping up all over L.A.— about 100 permits have been issued by
The key players, Villaraigosa, Garcetti and Delgadillo, watched it unfold without complaint.
Eighteen months ago, a quiet ambush of sorts unfolded on L.A. streets. Crews showed up in several neighborhoods and, without public notice or debate, began dismantling the front and back of longtime billboards, replacing them with huge, black faces. The darkened faces, containing 449,280 LED bulbs, represented an advertising revolution sweeping through some American cities where mayors and city councils said “yes.”
Firms like Clear Channel Outdoor and CBS Outdoor have spent billions of dollars on loads of LED bulbs from Daktronics of North Dakota, and on lobbying city councils nationwide to, in essence, flip the switch to digital.
But residents of Los Angeles were not invited to the debate. In more than 50 L.A. locations, LED bulbs were soon glowing, pitching everything from Fords to banking. Nobody knows whom to blame, and angry calls and letters to the City Council members “just got ignored,” says Hathaway.
Activists have discovered that in Los Angeles, the brilliant new signs are overseen by a creaky, 30-year-old California Environmental Quality Act Law (CEQA) law written to exempt the city‟s traditional billboards from environmental review.
Incredibly to legal experts, the City Council‟s deal did not plug up this exemption — a
mistake critics say might be expected from a college law school student but not from seasoned lawyers and political strategists at City Hall. Says Assistant City Planner Michael O‟Brien,“It is one of the city exemptions the Council adopted, but they adopted it years before billboard companies began plastering the city with supergraphics and digital billboards.”
Because all 17 elected officials involved — the Council members, mayor and city
attorney — failed to address that loophole, a billboard company in L.A. can file a CEQA exemption claiming a mere “modernization” is under way, then erect a digital billboard.
As a result, the city is rewarding years of bad behavior by Clear Channel, CBS Outdoor and Regency Outdoor, allowing them to go digital even if the old billboards they choose for “modernization” are in a no-billboards zone, community design overlay protection
area, or pedestrian-oriented district that bans billboards.
“Los Angeles has lost control of its built environment, and that is something that should concern all citizens,” says Kevin Fry, president of the anti-clutter organization Scenic
America, who is watching Los Angeles with fascination and dread.
“Every time you carve out an exception, you weaken the underlying structure of your sign code, and at one point it all falls apart,” he says. “The tail is wagging the dog, and the billboard companies are running L.A.”
Activist Hathaway says, “Even if that settlement were overturned, I imagine the billboard companies would fight tooth and nail in the courts to keep the digital billboards they‟ve already converted.” The count of LED billboards that have sprung up in spots like 1333
Westwood Blvd., and 1701 N. Silver Lake Blvd., is believed to be about 50. Each sign, including the one in Silver Lake that has put Garcetti in the cross hairs, will require a fight to remove. Success in court will be close to impossible, says Fry, because the billboard giants have vast legal resources to argue that their First Amendment Rights are being attacked. “They are like a virus,” he says. “Once they are in your system, they can‟t be removed.”
LaBonge‟s new concern, with motorists gawking instead of watching the road, is: “Who is liable? If I am driving down the street and I see a board and I keep looking at it and bang and I get into a fender-bender, who is liable? Are we liable because we allowed these up?” It‟s a good question, and one never discussed by the City Council.
Early this year, when the first digital billboards showed up, Encino resident and longtime
activist Gerry Silver decided to challenge the Villaraigosa administration‟s decision to
put up a bright, digital billboard on Ventura Boulevard, near his home. The terse notification of the city‟s action read: “Modernization of an existing 14-foot x 48-foot
billboard with digital technology.”
Silver contacted the city‟s planning department and asked for a copy of whatever
paperwork had been generated that would allow a flashing billboard, directly facing a rush-hour crowd of 30,000 commuters.
Last February, Silver received the paperwork — and was surprised to see that Clear
Channel Outdoor got the go-ahead from Villaraigosa‟s planning chief, Gail Goldberg, the city‟s top planner, who promotes herself as someone interested in “community” and a “sense of place.” A busy woman, the architect of the mayor‟s relentless push for dense
apartment complexes citywide, Goldberg had made the final decision on a single
billboard approval in the Valley.
Silver, who is plugged into the arcane rules of City Hall, formally asked the obscure South Valley Area Planning Commission to rule against Goldberg‟s decision. He argued
that Goldberg wrongly gave Clear Channel Outdoor a “categorical exemption” from environmental review on the inappropriate grounds that switching a billboard to digital is a “minor” alteration.
To Silver, the proposed sign, with its gigantic, changing images, raised questions of driver distraction, would use far more energy than a conventional billboard and created potential light pollution for residents — all environmental issues.
The day before an August 27 meeting of the South Valley Area Planning Commission to decide Silver‟s case, Clear Channel Outdoor got cold feet. For the first time in anyone‟s recollection, a huge billboard company chose to walk away from a fight with L.A. residents.
The “Encino incident” is now talked of as a watershed moment in the gathering war by Angelenos against digital billboards. In fact, Silver and others fighting billboards are charter members of the Valley Secession movement, long sick of decisions from
downtown that change their lives. Many are accustomed to drilling deep into the downtown bureaucracy in order to be heard.
The group Silver belongs to, the Coalition to Ban Billboard Blight, was the first in L.A. to challenge the absence of environmental review in digital-billboard approvals. But such challenges soon spread to other areas of the city. The same week Clear Channel abruptly abandoned its Ventura Boulevard plan, Westwood residents protested an enormous new digital sign switched on along Westwood Boulevard with no notice given to the Westwood Homeowners Association or Westwood South of Santa Monica Boulevard
On August 25, the two groups paid a $106 appeal fee to the Department of Building and Safety, arguing that L.A. law specifically bans flashing lights in their leafy, “pedestrian-
oriented district” near Westwood.
Westwood residents soon discovered that the Villaraigosa administration was so ill-prepared to handle angry citizen challenges against the unpopular LED displays that City Hall doesn‟t have a complaint form. “I think the issue had been viewed as a bunch of Westside NIMBYs [who are] only concerned about their neighborhoods,” says Barbara Broide, president of Westwood South of Santa Monica Boulevard Homeowners Association. “We went for a way to appeal the billboard — and there wasn‟t an obvious
In early October, the homeowner groups got a call from the Department of Building and Safety informing the members, many of them lawyers and Realtors, that the city was rejecting their appeal. A barely understandable, handwritten note from a building and safety worker stated dismissively: “Settlement agreement allows the modernization, and signoff is not required, as this is not a new sign.”
If Westwooders wanted to fight it, they‟d have to appeal to Villaraigosa‟s political appointees on the Building and Safety Commission downtown — and pay an additional
The next week, the two Westwood groups appealed two more huge digital signs, again in areas that specifically ban such clutter; one at 2131 Westwood Blvd., in the protected Pico-Westwood Neighborhood Oriented District, and another on Santa Monica Boulevard, east of Beverly Glen, on a designated scenic roadway.
City Hall‟s handling of these initial neighborhood complaints soon took on an inept, Kremlin-like flavor: A billboard in Encino was approved by $202,577-per-year planning
czar Goldberg, while a group opposing a billboard in Westwood got the shove-off — in a
handwritten note from an obscure Building and Safety employee.
What on earth was going on? Despite his training, Fifth District City Councilman Jack Weiss, a former assistant U.S. Attorney who now represents both Westwood and Encino, couldn‟t figure out who was in charge.
Weiss, who is running for city attorney to replace the termed-out Delgadillo, is the most outspoken billboard critic among elected leaders at City Hall. He is the only one who has consistently attacked the 2006 deal he once backed, although he has been joined of late by another Westsider, Rosendahl.
Weiss was furious about the Keystone Kops vibe in City Hall, and the inability of citizens to get a straight answer about how to challenge digital billboards. When he asked Department of Building and Safety officials for city records showing where the next planned digital conversions would appear, he was told that some of the details were under wraps — by orders from Delgadillo‟s office.