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L.A. to weigh 2 sides on digital sign

City Council to vote on 76-foot billboards that would bring a park to South Los Angeles.

April 08, 2008|David Zahniser | Times Staff Writer

Anti-billboard activists have mounted a last-ditch effort to derail a proposal before the Los Angeles City Council that would place two 76-foot-tall billboards next to the 10 Freeway as part of an unusual trade-off to create a park in South Los Angeles.

Although the double-faced billboards are planned for a gritty stretch of 16th Street near downtown Los Angeles, the proposal has drawn the ire of opponents in Westwood, Venice and Holmby Hills, who fear the decision will set a precedent -- clearing the way for towering signs at other freeway locations.

"Once one billboard company gets this, then everybody will want the same thing, and there's no way you can stop that," said Ted Wu, president of the Coalition to Ban Billboard Blight.

Wu's coalition has fired off e-mails to 50 neighborhood councils, asking them to call and write City Council members.

The proposal comes up for a vote today. And it has been complicated by the fact that a portion of the sign revenue would go toward creating a 9-acre wetland in South Los Angeles, a section of the city considered by many to be park-poor.

Neighborhood leaders near the proposed park site support the signs. They warn that the advocacy of the billboard foes could sabotage plans for a restored marshland, a picnic area and walking trails at 54th and San Pedro streets.

"I just wish they'd take the time to come to the area and see what we're up against," said Carole White, interim chair of the Voices of 90037 Neighborhood Council, which covers communities just south of USC. "We don't have much open space, and we don't have many opportunities to get more open space."

Today's vote comes as city officials face rising resentment about billboards, driven by anger over a 2006 legal settlement between the city and two outdoor advertising companies. That settlement allowed Clear Channel Outdoor and CBS Outdoor to convert 840 billboards to digital technology.

Because one of the signs will have two digital sides, opponents warn that motorists on the 10 Freeway will become distracted by the changing images, increasing the possibility of accidents.

The proposal has split some of the politicians who have power over development. Councilman Ed Reyes, who heads the council's planning committee, favors the idea. But another committee member, Councilman Jack Weiss, opposes it.

Although Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa favors the billboard proposal, his appointees on the Planning Commission -- including its outspoken president, Jane Usher -- recently voted against it.

The proposal dates to 2001, when city officials and the Metropolitan Transportation Authority teamed up to reconstruct a stretch of Santa Monica Boulevard between Beverly Hills and the 405 Freeway.

As part of that project, the MTA removed 14 billboards from the Santa Monica Boulevard median strip and turned the land over to Los Angeles to complete the road repair project. Clear Channel Outdoor, the owner of the billboards, sued in response, demanding payment from the MTA for the loss of advertising revenue.

To settle the lawsuit, the MTA tentatively agreed to create a billboard district on a bus yard that it owns next to the 10 Freeway. As part of the agreement, the MTA agreed to sell the city a maintenance yard at 54th and San Pedro streets if the sign district is approved.

Because the city has a 6-year-old ban on billboards, the council must vote for the sign district in order to approve the billboards.

The transit authority offered to lower the price of the 9-acre maintenance yard to $3 million, from its appraised value of $5.5 million, city and MTA officials said.

Still, billboard foes called the agreement a "backroom deal," one that improperly creates visual blight in exchange for more parkland in South Los Angeles.

"The deal should not be that they don't get a park. They should get their park," said Marcia Selz, who heads a coalition of homeowner groups in Weiss' Westside council district. "But the rate of exchange should not be billboards."

Councilwoman Jan Perry, who represents downtown and South Los Angeles, argued that the billboards would be erected in an industrial neighborhood, one with few residents who will be affected by the signs.

Perry also argued that her constituents understand the trade-off: They are accepting the billboards as part of the effort to take 14 billboards away from the Westside.

"We're not just helping my district," she said. "We're helping the neighborhood where the signs were removed."

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david.zahniser@latimes.com

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