To Live and Sign in LA

Signs, signs, everywhere the signs, blocking out the scenery, breaking my mind. Do this, don’t do that—can’t you read the signs?” That 1971 rock ditty from the Five Man Electrical Band might well be the anthem of many members of the Los Angeles planning commission and city council, given their recent and what some might call draconian measures against large outdoor signage.

In a March 26, 2009 Los Angeles Daily News article, staff writer Rick Orlov reported on the proposed measure to “ban digital signboards, establish no-sign districts and impose hefty fines on illegal signs. But it would also establish sign districts in commercial areas, where a more intense use of billboards would be allowed.”

The same article quoted planning commissioner Sean Burton as remarking, “We’re prohibiting digital signs, off-site signs and supergraphics in more than 99 percent of the city. The one percent left is most in intensely urban areas.”

According to the Los Angeles Times, the vote by the Los Angeles City Council on the new sign ordinance, originally scheduled for May 26, was postponed an additional three months. This is to allow the new City Attorney-elect Carmen Trutanich, who does not take office until July 1, to review the proposed ordinance.

To put it mildly, the proposals have not gone over well with the California Sign Association, the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce, and many other groups. Editorial writers have weighed in with their own thoughts, among them the Los Angeles Times architecture critic Christopher Hawthorne, who noted “billboards and supergraphics, if properly conceived and regulated, can add life and spirit to the cityscape.”

According to Jeff Aran, government affairs director with the California Sign Association, the ordinance currently pending bans any new billboards, digital signs and supergraphics in “a wholesale rewrite of the sign ordinance.”

The ordinance was the result of the Los Angeles planning commission working at the behest of the city council to whip together legislation in January, February, and March, Aran says with obvious irritation. “At every meeting of the plan commission, there was opposition, not only from the sign industry, but from anti-billboard people who didn’t feel they had enough time to review the proposal,” he reports.

“Los Angeles has 15 city council people and 89 neighborhood groups. Even the former planning director for the city spoke in opposition of the draft, because she thought it wasn’t done right. The whole community has got its fingers in this pie, and no one’s happy about the outcome. Unlike other communities, where you have meetings with affected parties and dialog on an issue, LA basically closed us out.”

As it stood in mid-April, Aran says, a ban is in place on any new billboards, digital signage, and supergraphics. It is being enforced by the aforementioned moratorium in place through mid-June and then renewable, while the new ordinance is being drafted.

But the actions in Los Angeles go beyond billboards, digital signage and supergraphics, notes David Hickey, director of government relations with Alexandria, VA-based International Sign Association. Not only is the moratorium affecting all new digital billboards, traditional billboards and supergraphics covering billboards, it also restricts pole signs to shorter heights, reduces the square area of sign faces, and proposes a ban on all new on-premise digital signs.

“The size and height restrictions I mentioned are for new signs,” Hickey says. “All existing signs will be grandfathered in, unless they need some significant structural alterations, in which case they will be considered nonconforming signs under the new code, and will be forced to be brought into compliance under the new code.”

The California Sign Association separates the debate into two separate issues, a billboard ban and an on-premise signage ban, Aran says. The association is currently working to let the world know just how separate they are.

“It’s like two different animals in their function,” he says. “There are a lot of cities that ban billboards already. But the major issue for us in Los Angeles is dealing with the digital signage, a communication medium used throughout the world. We believe the city is making a mistake by banning digital signage. There are digital signs throughout Los Angeles. I’m not talking just about billboards, but everything from time-and-temperature signs to signs outside Walgreens.”

Like others in opposition to the pending ordinance, Aran says Los Angeles doubtless has a great deal of illegal signage, including wallscapes and other billboards. The real issue, he argues, is the city doesn’t have staff to enforce existing ordinances against illegal signage, and therefore doesn’t enforce those ordinances effectively.

Aran is uncertain if a trend will be established by the actions taken in Los Angeles. He acknowledges other municipalities are seeking some form of crackdown on billboards, electronic signs, and supergraphics.

“It’s unknown,” he says of how successful efforts by cities from Tampa to Omaha will be. “The proposal [of Los Angeles] is so onerous that other communities hopefully won’t follow suit. And remember this is still a work in progress.”

Jeff Golimowski, communications director with the Washington, DC-based Outdoor Advertising Association of America (OAAA) says he doesn’t see this emerging as a trend. “It’s difficult [to know] at this point,” he says. “We don’t know what’s going to happen with legislation. And because we don’t know that, it’s really premature to say if this will have any impact anywhere else. I will say Los Angeles in particular is a city unlike any other in the United States, in terms of having its own attitudes and ideas.”

“We are seeing restrictive codes being instituted in other metro areas,” he says. “But this seems a bit more restrictive, in proposing to ban all new digital signs,” says Hickey.

From her standpoint, SGIA vice-president of government and business information Marci Kinter sees two issues at play. The first is the recurring issue of billboard and sign codes in the United States, which are handled at the municipal level. The issue involving electronic billboards, she says, is not unique to Los Angeles. Other jurisdictions have issued municipal codes stipulating that for one electronic billboard to be put up, the same outdoor company has to take down a certain number of traditional billboards.

However, “the issue about building wraps is unique in Los Angeles,” she adds. “I haven’t heard other municipalities outlawing them.”

Nationally, it appears the outdoor industry is moving away from traditional billboards and moving toward electronic billboards, Kinter says. From an outdoor advertiser’s point of view, an electronic billboard provides the opportunity to tout multiple messages from the same billboard. “You’re really talking about economies of scale,” she says. “But from [Washington, DC-based anti-billboard organization] Scenic America’s point of view, they like fewer billboards.”

When the dust settles on this great debate, how likely are print providers to be hurt? We put that question to all sources in this article and got a range of replies.

If anyone is likely to feel pain from these rulings, Kinter says, it will be the companies that have been involved in producing traditional billboards.

“I hate to say it, but, yeah, if they’re looking to curb the proliferation of what they call ‘visual pollution,’ and responding to complaints by citizens regarding the proliferation of these huge outdoor elements, then you will see a decrease in the amount of signs being created,” she observes. “I don’t want to sound like a doomsayer, but if the municipalities are looking to curb the signage, there will be a definite impact.”

But Kinter is quick to add a caveat, noting no wide-format graphics ban has been seen in areas outside LA. “The only thing I’m seeing is billboards,” she says.

Hickey is similarly matter-of-fact in addressing digitally printed wide-format signs’ future. “To the extent digital printing is used for supergraphic signs and other types of on-premise signs, that will be bad for companies that use digital printing,” he says. “But it might well be the larger companies that do supergraphic signs most affected.”

Sounding a less pessimistic tone is OAAA’s Golimowski. “If you look at the amount of billboard inventory out there, billboards aren’t going anywhere,” he says. “There will be a need for wide-format. But until we know what the final rules and regulations will be in LA, we can’t make any real predictions.”