The Los Angeles City Council chamber may not be the best place to debate a philosophical question, but the ongoing debacle of billboard and sign regulation here leaves little choice.
The question is this: Who owns the visual landscape of the city? Or, put in more concrete terms, do companies selling products and services have an absolute right to confront us whenever we venture outdoors?
The answer, from a legal standpoint, clearly is no. Yet the City Council is set to hand over another hunk of L.A. to billboard companies -- this time 50,000 square feet along the side of the Convention Center. The council could vote as soon as today.
Other cities -- Santa Monica, Pasadena, Torrance -- are virtually free of billboards. Their politicians long ago comprehended that using their cities as a commercial canvas was degrading aesthetically as well as socially: Citizens deserve better than to be treated as automatons whose highest purpose is to shop and consume.
The Los Angeles City Council seemed to grasp these values six years ago, when it banned new billboards and other forms of "off-site" advertising and embarked on an ambitious program to inspect every sign in the city and take down the estimated 3,000 or more that were erected or modified illegally.
But then the city dropped the ball. Legal challenges, revenue problems and outright fecklessness on the part of the council have filled Los Angeles with more and more insistent, in-your-face exhortations to get a soft drink or hamburger, to buy a new car or queue up for the latest blockbuster.
Now some council members are actively facilitating this transfer of ownership of the city's visual space to the private sector. Earlier this year, Jan Perry pushed through a deal to allow the erection of electronic billboards in a Metropolitan Transit Authority bus lot alongside the Santa Monica Freeway.
Herb Wesson got preliminary approval for a special "billboard district" that would allow new electronic and super-graphic signs in a wide swath of Koreatown, and Ed Reyes wants a similar district established alongside the Harbor Freeway in downtown.
On the council's agenda today is the plan Janice Hahn is promoting to sell the rights to install electronic advertising signs on the face of the L.A. Convention Center.
The long, greenish, curved facade of the building happens to face the confluence of the Santa Monica and Harbor freeways. An array of electronic signs -- possibly full-motion video, though the council hasn't been specific -- will be directly in the faces of north- and eastbound motorists. The brightly lighted, rapidly changing messages will be unavoidable unless drivers close their eyes.
Hahn calls the selling of advertising rights on a public building a "clever" way to raise revenue for the city. So what's next in this exercise of fiscal cleverness? A super-graphic wrap of City Hall?
Hahn and others supporting this misguided idea will argue that the annual $2 million or more the city expects to get from the advertising signs will help pay for police officers and other services. They will point to the city's budget gap and claim that without such schemes, they will be forced to raise fees or taxes or start cutting city services.
Interestingly, the council also is expected to vote today on a number of "fee waivers" for a church's golden jubilee celebration, a block club party, a farmers market and others. Such waivers -- which mean the city picks up the tab for traffic control, policing, cleanup -- add up to more than $1 million annually, or about half the amount the city expects to get from selling the signage rights at the Convention Center.
This isn't to say that the city should stop providing free services to groups staging worthwhile public events. The point is that the City Council owes its citizens a public debate about what we're getting along with this $2 million. Is it worth the visual blight, light pollution and diminished freeway safety?
And is it worth the precedent the city is setting? The city can't enforce its billboard rules when it is elbow-deep in the business. In June, a federal judge threw into question the rule against signs within 2,000 feet of a freeway -- in part because the city has OKd such billboards when it stands to benefit.
It was bad enough when Los Angeles meekly surrendered its visual environment. But if the City Council keeps playing along with the outdoor-advertising industry, the consequences will be visible for years as well as miles.