Give Me a Sign

Give Me a Sign

Late last week, the Los Angeles city council unanimously approved an emergency ordinance to prevent new digital billboards, multistory supergraphics, and some freeway-facing signs. The move was enacted to prevent the city’s current “Interim Control Ordinance” (ICO), which temporarily bans new outdoor advertising, from being struck down in a court challenge.

But the emergency measure creates more ambiguity for developers and architects as they wait for the issue to be settled. “It resolves uncertainties for the city, but creates more for architects and developers,” said Paul Rohrer, an attorney at Manatt, Phelps & Phillips who represents several developers.

For the past year, the city council has been working to develop new rules for billboard advertising that can prevail against legal challenges. In the meantime, the city has continued to pass temporary moratoriums as stopgap measures. The most recent temporary ban was challenged in court by Liberty Media Group, which claimed the ICO violated several California codes, and argued that the city had prevented Liberty Media from obtaining permits to erect supergraphics while issuing permits to other media companies and developers. The case was scheduled for a hearing before a federal judge on August 17, but has now been postponed to consider the new ordinance’s effect on the case.

The council feared that if the ban were to be defeated, billboard companies would overrun the city with applications for new signs. The unanimous vote represents an about-face for Seventh District Councilmember Richard Alarcón, who had previously called for a law that would allow council members to coordinate sign swaps that would remove some signs in exchange for allowing new digital signs.

The continued delays for a comprehensive sign ordinance have frustrated architects and developers. In March, the City Planning Commission recommended a different ordinance to the city council that included plans for 21 “sign districts,” including Hollywood, Universal City, Westchester, and Boyle Heights. The latest emergency measure essentially nullifies such special-use districts. Large development projects in proposed sign districts that have gotten entitlements for off-site advertising signs but have not yet gotten building permits are now out of luck, since the city will no longer issue permits for new billboard types included in the ban.

According to Derek Ryder, a member of the AIA/LA Ad-Hoc Sign Committee, the ongoing legal wrangling and emergency bans are taking a toll on architects. The uncertainty around sign regulation means architects and developers “are unable to finalize their designs or pro-formas, and may be choosing to extend submittal dates for projects just to know which way the city council will go on this issue,” said Ryder. He added that delays have economic consequences, “since project financing is costly and can’t be continued indefinitely.” Rohrer, citing the legal challenges presented by billboard company World Wide Rush against the city’s temporary ICO, in addition to the Liberty Media court case, echoed Ryder’s concerns.

“The uncertainty hurts architects by discouraging development,” said Rohrer. The more critical issue, he argued, is enforcement. “If the city wasn’t properly enforcing the laws they have, passing new laws doesn’t help.” For his part, anti-billboard activist Dennis Hathaway, of the Coalition to Ban Billboard Blight, foresees future court challenges to the latest ordinance.

Within the design community, opinions on the issue are split. “For the architects and developers who support digital billboards, a permanent ban would be a setback to the cause of technological expression, freedom of speech, and unfettered commerce,” said Ryder, who is principal at the architecture firm Alias Designs. “For proponents of a public space dedicated to the public without the loud, simplistic messages of commerce intruding on your every view down the street, a permanent ban would be a modest step forward in a city already heavily blighted by the excesses of a powerful billboard industry and an auto-centric urbanism.”