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Debate Set to Start on Reworked Sign Rules

By Eric Richardson
Published: Wednesday, January 21, 2009, at 03:35PM
New Ad Eric Richardson [Flickr]

This vodka ad on the side of a garage off Flower street is one of many new signs to appear Downtown in the last month and a half.

A new ordinance governing signage in the city of Los Angeles gets it first public hearing tomorrow, proposing drastic changes in the way that signs are governed. The new rules would outlaw digital billboards and drastically reduce the amount of space available for signage.

While it would be hard to find anyone happy with the current signage situation, the new ordinance is unlikely to completely satisfy any side of the debate.

The city's current rules governing what kind of signs properties can erect and where those signs can go date back to 1986. Both 2002 and 2008 saw attempts to stem the tide of new advertisements by placing a moratorium on "off-site" ads -- signs advertising something other than what's at that location. "On-site" signage -- for instance, the sign on a McDonalds or Bank of America -- has tended to generate less controversy.

The end result of the various revisions has been a set of regulations that's hard to understand. Councilwoman Jan Perry looks forward to seeing that change. "Signage issues in our building codes are confusing," she said. "Everyone supports a more consolidated approach."

The new 122-page ordinance, set to be presented Thursday morning at a meeting of the City Planning Commission, would do away with the distinction between on- and off-site signs, instead creating a blanket set of conditions governing the placement and size of signage. These new rules would cut by 75% the amount of signage a property is allowed to erect, allowing one square foot of sign area per linear foot of street frontage. Additionally, signs would be limited to the first 35 feet of a building's height, and signs could be no larger than 100 square feet.

Those changes would be particularly bad for Downtown, according to the Central City Association. In a letter to the Planning Commission, the business organization criticizes the ordinance language for using a "one-size-fits-all approach" in regulating signage.

The ordinance does not give any special consideration to high-rise buildings, imposing the same 35-foot height and 100-foot size restrictions on signs in Downtown. Such signage would be out-of- proportion on tall buildings and further impede Downtown’s efforts to retain and attract new retail, advertise residential units and install identifying building signage, such as the sign on the U.S Bank Tower. Cultural institutions like MOCA and the Walt Disney Concert Hall – which currently advertise exhibits with temporary banners and displays that have ranged from 900 to 1500 square feet – would be at risk if the 100 square-foot size and 30-day duration limits are imposed. Narrow lots with high-rise buildings will be subject to the same one-for-one foot ratio as low-rise buildings throughout the City.

Perry agrees that different parts of the city should have different rules. "Clearly, Downtown and Hollywood have very different signage issues than more residential-based communities," she noted. "Do we put every neighborhood in the same box? I think we don't."

CCA also asks that the signage ordinance be taken through a more deliberate planning process, noting that the Planning Department created the proposed new rules with little community input, publishing the code just nine days before the Planning Commission hearing.

On the other side of the argument, Dennis Hathaway of the Coalition to Ban Billboard Blight says that the new rules don't go far enough. In a posting on the group's website, Hathaway says that the new ordinance should remove the ability for Sign Districts to apply different signage rules, writing that the "only way the new regulations can assure [the visual environment is maintained] is to eliminate the possibility of granting variances and exceptions through such mechanisms as sign districts."

The ordinance would continue to allow the Signage Districts, though it would alter several of the conditions by which a district could be created.

Both Hathaway and CCA are skeptical of the move to lump on- and off-site signage together. The CCA letter asks for more time to "address the complexities of the issue," claiming that the new ordinance was the first time the idea was raised. Hathaway worries that the new rules could lead every business to house a billboard. "In other words, your corner dry cleaners could have a sign advertising burgers or cellphones, as long as it met size and placement restrictions," he writes.

In the staff report accompanying the ordinance, the Planning department says that the change will make it easier for enforcement staff from Building and Safety to crack down on illegal signs. Inspectors would no longer "be forced to make subjective interpretations about whether the content of a sign contains on-site or off-site messages."

The signage issue has simmered for years, with advertising companies suing to get the city's rules against off-site signage lifted and arguing that the restrictions are an infringement on the companies' free speech. Murals, once a rich Los Angeles tradition, have been caught in the crossfire and strongly policed.

Last month the issue came to a head, with the City Council passing an Interim Control Ordinance again attempting to ban off-site signage while it figured out a new set of rules. Despite the measure, new signage and "murals" have proliferated in the past month. Mike McNeilly's massive images featuring the Statue of Liberty and the text "1969" have been most pervasive. While McNeilly claims the works are art, he also owns Skytag, an outdoor advertising company.

The ordinance and accompanying staff report give no guidance on how the city would crack down on existing illegal signage. It would also have little effect on existing billboards and legally placed ads.

If passed by the City Planning Commission, the ordinance would next go to the City Council's Planning, Land Use and Management committee and then would require City Council approval. The commission could also request changes to the ordinance, asking to rehear it at a future meeting.

It's clear that the city expects the issue to generate plenty of comments. The meeting of the City Planning Commission is scheduled for 8:30am, but the agenda includes a note that items after the signage code won't be heard until at least 11am.

Confused? We've put together a short Q&A on some signage ordinance questions.


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