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Supergraphic entrepreneur's tactic in L.A. infuriates foes

March 15, 2009|David Zahniser

Outdoor advertising entrepreneur Michael McNeilly stunned Los Angeles neighborhood activists earlier this year when he submitted documents asking a federal judge to let him keep enormous images on the sides of scores of buildings.

As he waged his legal battle against the city's sign laws, the Beverly Hills businessman contended that inspectors should be barred from ordering his company to remove supergraphics -- vinyl images that can be larger than the biggest billboard -- from 118 sites where the firm had erected them.

A Times survey of those addresses, made between Jan. 10 and Feb. 10, found that fewer than a third actually had supergraphics. Sixty-six buildings had no images at all. And 11 had posters no more than a few feet high.

The discrepancy has infuriated foes of outdoor advertising, who have accused McNeilly of trying to pass off a series of unadorned buildings -- some taller than 25 stories -- as advertising space that already exists and therefore should be exempt from a recent city sign moratorium. McNeilly's strategy, they suspect, is to secure permission for hundreds of supergraphics that would typically be rejected by building inspectors.

"He says that they're on there -- it's in plain English -- and they're not," said Dennis Hathaway, president of the Coalition to Ban Billboard Blight. "He's trying to get a judge to go for an injunction on those addresses, and if he gets an injunction, he can put an ad up" at each location.

McNeilly's gambit is one of several faced by city officials as they struggle to get a handle on unpermitted outdoor advertising.

Neighborhood groups, already upset over scores of new flashing digital billboards, are frustrated that the city has had so much difficulty policing supergraphics, which are often large enough to be seen miles away.

McNeilly's firm, SkyTag, is one of four advertising companies that will appear in federal court Monday as part of an effort to stop the city from ordering them to remove multistory signs. If SkyTag is successful, McNeilly could secure permission for images on more than 450 building surfaces -- at locations that include North Hollywood, Koreatown, Westwood, Encino, Granada Hills, Hollywood and downtown Los Angeles.

SkyTag's lawyers contend that a 2002 ban on supergraphics is unconstitutional because it allows the City Council to prohibit some signs while allowing others to go up on city buildings or in special zones, such as Hollywood. Although other companies have made similar arguments, McNeilly quickly established his firm as one of the industry's most aggressive, placing his calling card, a multistory image of the Statue of Liberty, at more than a dozen locations without permits.

On Jan. 12, two weeks after the council imposed a new, temporary sign moratorium, McNeilly submitted paperwork saying he had erected supergraphics at 118 addresses that should be shielded from enforcement by a federal judge. Although he later reduced that number slightly, he continued to assert that each supergraphic had been installed before Dec. 26, the date the new moratorium took effect.

"As such, all should be protected" by a court order, he said.

City lawyers responded by visiting each site and submitting dozens of photographs to the judge showing buildings with no images on them.

"It would be wrong for the judge to now give Mr. McNeilly carte blanche to put up giant supergraphics long after the city's moratorium against such signs went into effect," said Chief Assistant City Atty. David Michaelson. "That is a lawful ordinance of the city of Los Angeles that no one has challenged in court."

SkyTag attorney Gary Mobley submitted his own set of photographs to the court, saying building inspectors had failed to notice all of his client's images, particularly the smaller posters. "They went to the wrong address or they ignored Mr. McNeilly's statement that a number of these were smaller supergraphics," he said.

Over four weeks, The Times conducted its own site-by-site visit, walking around buildings where McNeilly said his company had erected supergraphics.

Thirty-three locations, mostly in Hollywood and on the Westside, had supergraphics: non-commercial images such as McNeilly's Statue of Liberty, commercial advertising or both.

Far more typical were the office buildings that had nothing at all. Ten workers at five of those addresses told The Times that they had never seen a supergraphic on the outside of their workplace.

"I've been here since 1993, and I know I would have seen it if it had one," said Ken Sweet, who manages facilities for Morris, Polich and Purdy LLC, a law firm that occupies the 23rd and 24th floor of 1055 W. 7th St.

Office workers at 360 E. 2nd St. gave similar reports. "There would have been a lot of noise if we had one," said Linda Aparicio, who handles communications for the Los Angeles City Employees' Retirement System.

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