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Valley Perspective

Law Takes Dim View of Pole Signs

September 28, 1997

The view along the Ventura Freeway through the western end of Calabasas is among the most dramatic afforded from an urban highway anywhere in Southern California. Crossing beneath the Las Virgenes Road overpass, a tiny valley unfolds, cradled in the looming Santa Monica Mountains as it winds its way--ever steeper and narrower--along Malibu Creek to the ocean. With a slight lift of the chin, it's possible to look right over the roofs of the nondescript commercial buildings lining the freeway and, were it not for the giant pole signs that tower over everything else in sight, imagine a pristine landscape.

Clearing away those signs and others like them is the admirable goal of a new Calabasas city ordinance that demands the pole signs come down over the next 15 years. There's nothing new about cities trying to take down pole signs, which look like giant lollipops topped with corporate logos. Often, though, the efforts turn nasty as politicians and merchants duke it out in a fight that pits aesthetics against small businesses. Witness the ugly fight that erupted over a similar ordinance in Agoura Hills, just down the road from Calabasas.

But Calabasas may actually have a shot at getting rid of what some derisively call "litter on a stick." Here's why. There are only eight signs targeted by the ordinance and many of the owners have already vowed to comply with the law. It helped that the city waited several years after its 1991 incorporation to enforce a law that ostensibly was already on the books. It gave merchants time to plan. And they still have plenty of time to comply. Plus, the city wants to build a sign near the freeway that would alert motorists to services available at the Las Virgenes exit. That would help maintain the exposure freeway businesses such as restaurants and gas stations need to survive.

Calabasas officials and most of its merchants recognize that aesthetics and good business are not mutually exclusive, but complementary. Too often in the past, commercial districts were devoured by poor planning and scant attention to the eye-pleasing details that make customers want to come back. Signs play a big role in how a business--and a business district--is perceived. Effective signs can be attractive. Rarely are 50-foot lollipops attractive.

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