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L.A. is wrong, in neon

L.A. Live acted in good faith for years and should be allowed to erect six large illuminated signs.

October 23, 2009

A deal's a deal. That's worth remembering this week as the city attorney's office fences with AEG, the developer of the L.A. Live project, over the imminent opening of a new movie theater at the downtown entertainment complex. At issue are six large illuminated signs that are part of the project and that the city attorney's office is denying permits for fear that they might run afoul of the city's billboard moratorium. That may seem like a tediously small issue, but the debate over those signs quickly becomes one over whether Los Angeles keeps its word and is safe for responsible investment.

The L.A. Live project has been the subject of city scrutiny since 2001. At every stage, the city has reviewed and approved it. It entered into the development agreement, approved specific plans and issued a series of permits that cleared the size, location, even the wiring for the signs in question. Based on those approvals, AEG has invested hundreds of millions of dollars in the project.

As L.A. Live has moved forward, the city also has been struggling to craft coherent, constitutional restrictions on new billboards. Time and again, it has written a policy only to undermine it with exceptions. That has understandably infuriated Audrey Collins, the federal judge weighing the constitutionality of the moratorium. Recently, Collins upheld the ban on new billboards and yet allowed two projects to proceed because they already had received sign permits and thus were "vested" prior to the passage of the new law.

We applaud the City Council's efforts to halt new billboards, and we support a strong, legally enforceable ordinance. But L.A. Live built its signs with specific and repeated city authorization. City Atty. Carmen Trutanich and his staff are overreaching in concluding that L.A. Live is not "vested" because it hasn't received a final sign permit. If eight years of city approvals and the company's huge investments based on them do not constitute vesting, nothing does.

Compounding the problems with the city attorney's position has been his truculence. At one meeting earlier this month, he threatened to jail a city official if he granted AEG's permit. A Trutanich deputy now says that was meant in jest, but it creates an impossible quandary for a well-meaning department head when his own lawyer proposes putting him in jail.

Bombast and egotism are sadly familiar in city government, though Trutanich is plumbing new depths in both. Fortunately, the solution is clear: The city should grant the permit, reassuring those who want to invest in Los Angeles that the welcome mat won't be pulled out from under them. If the permit is challenged, Collins should rule that this was not a backroom exception of the type she is determined to squash, but part of a long-sealed agreement that can no longer be undone. Trutanich, meanwhile, should lay off the coffee.

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