Council Quest for Revenue Could Target City Parks

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Dennis Hathaway of the Coalition to Ban Billboard Blight has several good reasons to be worried. As the city council's Planning and Land Use Management Committee grinds through further revisions of the city's sign regulations, he sees ever more plainly the handwriting on the wall. The latest political graffiti:

LA City Councilwoman and mayoral candidate Jan Perry has written a letter to a City Council committee urging adoption of a sign ordinance provision that would allow signs, banners, and other forms of commercial advertising in city parks and other public facilities. Without such a provision, Perry wrote to members of the Planning and Land Use Management (PLUM) committee, the city will be "missing a critical opportunity to create possible revenue through signage at city facilities . . ."
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Although it's unlikely that Perry's proposal will make much headway with a majority of council members, her suggestion adds to the council's drift toward monetizing public facilities (like selling advertising in parks) and privatizing risks (like shifting sidewalk repairs to property owners). Lost in this hustle is any consideration of the proper role of the city in protecting the common good or equitably sharing its costs.

Perry's letter also questioned standards in the draft ordinance regulating the special districts that permit installation of bigger and brighter signs not allowed outside the district. Restrictions on the minimum size of a sign district are supposed to prevent the creation of a mini-"single project" district that would, presumably, benefit a single advertiser or property owner.

Perry, however, is siding with lobbyists for the outdoor advertising industry and wants to shrink the minimum street frontage for a sign district from 5,000 feet to about 2,600 feet.

City planners talk about enhancing the streetscape through signage standards, but the unspoken justification is that if a sign district can be configured to benefit a particular business, then city council members will use it as another tool for leveraging political gain.

Perry also offered support to advertisers and building owners whose existing signs might be targeted for removal under the proposed ordinance. Perry and Councilman Ed Reyes have suggested that these signs could stay if the sign's owner paid for street improvements - in effect, trading income producing visual blight above for sidewalk repairs below. As Dennis Hathaway noted:

At the August meeting of the . . . PLUM committee, chairman Ed Reyes tossed lobbyists the red meat they wanted by asking the planning staff why "streetscape improvement and beautification" hadn't been included as an alternative to the billboard takedown requirement. Reyes was either ignorant of, or choose to ignore the fact that the City Planning Commission (CPC) had listened to numerous public comments and discussed the issue at length before deciding that removing existing billboards was the community benefit commensurate with the highly lucrative entitlement for new billboards and supergraphic signs within a sign district.

For city council members, fatally weakening the proposed sign ordinance is a perfect melding of interests. Developers and advertisers get to keep their existing wall-spanning signs and install more of them elsewhere. Council members get the usual "quid pro quo" for serving the only constituency that seems to matter. And the city gets to abandon even more of the bothersome care of its neighborhoods.

You could call it a sign of the times.

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 in the public domain. It is archived at the Library of Congress.

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