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STEVE LOPEZ / POINTS WEST

A digital billboard assault on L.A.

October 05, 2008|STEVE LOPEZ

Thank you, L.A. City Atty. Rocky Delgadillo, for being such a pal to the billboard industry.

The new gigantic digital ads in my neighborhood, with white-hot flashing pitches for Coke and Sean John, are a swell addition to otherwise quaint Silver Lake Boulevard.

Thank you, Los Angeles City Council, for rolling over time after time to the same outdoor advertising companies -- Regency, Clear Channel and CBS, to name a few.

I'm sure residents of the Fairfax district are happy too. They have a spiffy new electronic sign the size of the Queen Mary on 3rd Street near Fairfax, telling them not to miss the new "Smackdown" TV premiere and "Magic's Biggest Secrets Revealed." (How do they cut that woman in half?)

Dear readers, if you thought the Los Angeles landscape was already polluted by advertising, just wait. The city could end up looking like Planet Plasma. There will be no such thing as nightfall. Digital ads will keep darkness at bay, changing every few seconds and selling everything from bad sitcoms to cheap perfume.

About 40 to 50 billboards on the Westside alone have been converted from conventional to digital this year, and SEVERAL HUNDRED MORE could soon be converted citywide under terms of a lawsuit settlement city officials rubber-stamped in 2006.

"It's a mess," said Ted Wu, a billboard-regulation activist who has fought a losing battle for roughly 40 years. "I don't think there's any councilman . . . who understands the problem of visual pollution."

So how did outdoor advertising companies manage to rule the city and take control of our lives?

"I don't want to call it corruption," said Wu. But with campaign donations, "everybody is in the billboard companies' pockets."

City officials have admitted over the last decade that because of inept regulation, they had no idea how many billboards existed in Los Angeles or how many of them had permits. Bungled attempts to address the problem have resulted in multiple lawsuits by billboard bullies, who have made "free speech" and other arguments.

In 2006, Delgadillo worked out settlements that must have had the advertising giants popping the champagne.

Delgadillo "negotiated" a deal that gave billboard companies the right to modernize some signs, add new ones and legalize some that had been erected illegally. It's not clear why he didn't also hand over his first-born, Lakers season tickets and free use of city vehicles with his wife serving as chauffeur.

I'm no lawyer, but why Delgadillo was allowed anywhere near this case remains a mystery to me. He was elected to office in 2001 with the help of $424,000 in advertising space donated by -- don't choke on your omelet -- the billboard companies.

But Delgadillo can't be assigned all the blame.

Does anyone recall the City Council vote tally on Rocky's 2006 deal?

Twelve in favor, zero against. In case you were wondering, yes, the billboard companies have also been kind to council members at election time.

"Looking back now, this was not presented to us in the depth we would have liked," said Councilman Eric Garcetti, taking a poke at Delgadillo. "But that's my responsibility. I'm not going to lay that at the feet of the city attorney."

I thought he just did.

Councilman Jack Weiss said he too takes responsibility for not taking responsibility. Weiss, who is now running for city attorney, is at least currently trying to do something to prevent a proliferation of signs, as is Garcetti.

Weiss said he recently blocked a digital conversion on Ventura Boulevard in Encino, arguing that an electronic billboard would be out of compliance with the local zoning plan and the California Environmental Quality Act.

He's also trying to block so-called super-graphic ads draped from buildings all over town. Weiss said those monstrosities are an even bigger threat to the landscape than electronic billboards.

In a bad economy, Weiss said, building owners who are having trouble collecting rent will gladly collect thousands for turning their buildings over to advertisers. And advertising companies are rushing to take advantage of an injunction against a ban Weiss helped write into law.

Garcetti introduced a measure last week calling for the city attorney and the Department of Building and Safety to explore ways to limit electronic billboards that throw light into nearby homes and are out of character with the neighborhood. Like the one in his Silver Lake district.

"It's atrocious," he said.

The sign wouldn't stand out so much if it were in the heart of Hollywood or along a major commercial strip elsewhere in the city. But with just a few shops under the billboard, and houses and apartments all around, this behemoth is the definition of obscenity.

Come on, it's Silver Lake. You'd think the jugheads at Clear Channel would have at least had the sense to advertise high-top Converse sneakers and organic dog chow.

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