Council Committee takes up Controversial Sign Ordinance

The Lights Will Be Brighter There

Despite loud opposition from neighborhood organizations, the city council's Planning and Land Use Management (PLUM) Committee is still on track to give preliminary approval to a controversial revision of the city's sign ordinance.

The ordinance is supposed to bring some order to the patchwork of existing Sign Districts and Specific Plans that regulate -- encourage, some say -- the placement of advertising along major streets and freeways in Los Angeles. (SoCal Connected covers the issues here.)

[Update The PLUM Committee referred the draft ordinance back to staff for even more revisions at its Tuesday afternoon meeting,]

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The specter of building-sized LED billboards overlooking residential streets has the city's Neighborhood Councils united in opposition to the ordinance, which they say has become captive of the industry the measure is supposed to regulate. Instead of significantly reducing signage impacts, the councils told the PLUM committee, the ordinance in their view would allow full-motion, lighted signs to proliferate on apartment buildings, sports venues, and high-rise structures.

Opposition to the new sign law is being led by the Coalition to Ban Billboard Blight

Signage is a thorny issue for city council members. Big LED billboards and wall-spanning super-graphics are universally loathed by voters, but outdoor advertising is a significant income stream for developers. They've successfully pressured committee members to soften some proposed sign restrictions.

And they point to other developers who have already been given extraordinary signage concessions. Under its deal with the city council, AEG's downtown football stadium will be plated with massive LED billboards that could generate millions of dollars in annual revenue for AEG.

Cynics say that council members rarely make the right choices when constituents and developers are in conflict. The proposed sign ordinance is a good example. It contains just enough regulatory language to permit council members to declare victory over advertising blight and more than enough exceptions to satisfy outdoor advertising companies and the owners of tall buildings that have freeway frontage.

Most troubling is a proposed exception for the Sign Districts the city council created when earlier regulations were struck down by the courts. Although existing districts cannot conform to the new law, they would continue under many of the old rules. (Curbed LA. has additional details here.)

The new ordinance also appears to contain language giving city staff members -- at their discretion -- authority to grant a 20 percent size bonus to applicants. Given the politics of these "ministerial approvals," it's likely that every applicant who has the ear of a city council member will get the 20 percent bigger bonus.

Corporations also would seem to get an exemption for "donor signage" placed on a building. How this would work in practice is murky, but a sponsor might be able to brand a building with very few restrictions on the size or placement of big, bright corporate logos.

The dazzling lights of Times Square, the Ginza and Blade Runner have all been evoked as possible models for nighttime Los Angeles by those for and against the proposed sign ordinance.

None of those choices has much appeal for neighborhood residents, who prefer their own L.A. to New York, Tokyo, or a blighted, dystopian future.

D. J. Waldie, author, historian, and as the New York Times said in 2007, "a gorgeous distiller of architectural and social history," writes about Los Angeles on KCET's SoCal Focus blog.

The image on this page is from public domain sources.

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