Politics

Gov. Brown to decide if DTLA gets big digital billboards

A digital billboard in Atwater Village. The Los Angeles City Council is devising new rules for billboards.
A digital billboard in Atwater Village. The Los Angeles City Council is devising new rules for billboards.
Flickr/Atwater Village Newbie

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A bill that would allow digital billboards along freeways and in Downtown Los Angeles' fast-growing sports and tourism district has been sent to Gov. Jerry Brown for his approval, but the L.A. City Council could still have the final word.

The bill, AB1373, would require digital billboards to conform to whatever sign ordinance the City Council eventually passes, so it's not a sure thing that new signs could go up, said its author, Downtown L.A. Assemblyman Miguel Santiago. City law currently bans new billboards outside narrowly defined sign districts, and the council is crafting a new ordinance to control new billboards and encourage the removal of old ones.

The bill would allow digital billboards to go up in an area of Downtown L.A. bounded by the 10 and 110 freeways, and South Figueroa and West 8th streets — a strip that includes familiar landmarks such as The Original Pantry Café, the L.A. Live entertainment complex, and the Los Angeles Convention Center.

Shaded area shows the location where digital billboards would be allowed under a bill sponsored by Assemblyman Miguel Santiago.
Shaded area shows the location where digital billboards would be allowed under a bill sponsored by Assemblyman Miguel Santiago.
Google Maps / KPCC

Gov. Brown has 30 days to approve or veto the bill, which cleared the Legislature on Friday. A spokesman for the governor would not disclose whether Brown would sign or reject it.

If signed into law, "It would help us to attract much-needed investment into Downtown Los Angeles," Santiago said. "What we are doing is consistent with L.A.'s city plans to drive in the necessary 3,000 to 4,000 more hotel rooms so that we have a viable convention center and continue to grow."

In his arguments for passage of the bill, Santiago said the revenue that private developers could make from the signs would make up for a lack of taxpayer subsidies for big hotel and other projects.

Santiago said the Chinese development firm Greenland USA approached him about creating an exception in state law to allow the digital signs on its billion-dollar Metropolis mixed-use development that is under construction at West 8th and Francisco Streets.

The existing billboard advertising around L.A. Live has made that area more vibrant, he said, and the company wants to expand such signage to a wider area along Figueroa and the freeways. 

However, Dennis Hathaway, president of the Coalition to Ban Billboard Blight, says allowing the brightly lit signs would be "a detriment to the city."

"I think it's going to be very tough if the Metropolis project comes along and says, 'We want X number of digital signs of a certain size,' for the City Council to say no to that," Hathaway said.

The area already has plenty of neon and digital signage, but it’s for businesses the signs are attached to, and it's limited to specific areas close to L.A. Live. Santiago's bill would permit so-called off-site signs, which promote products not on a business' premises.

The new signs would have to comply with whatever regulations the City Council sets on brightness, flashing and types of messages.

A City Council committee is devising new rules on billboards, and could recommend higher fees to pay for increased enforcement of sign regulations. Currently, more than 900 billboards in the city do not have a valid permit. 

California's Outdoor Advertising Act bars new billboards that are within 660 feet of interstate highways. In the area adjacent to the proposed Downtown billboard district, the 110 Freeway is a state route. Its status as an interstate highway begins south of Interestate 10.

The federal government gives states control over billboards along interstate highways, but requires billboards to be kept 660 feet from federally funded highways. States that don't comply risk losing federal highway funds. California received $3.5 billion in federal transportation funds in 2014. Santiago's bill says the state could continue to bar new downtown billboards if the Federal Highway Administration opposes the signs and threatens to reduce those highway funds.