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Amid Signage Debate, Plans for "Blade Runner" District Move Forward

By Eric Richardson
Published: Monday, February 02, 2009, at 10:30PM
Edge of the Skyline Eric Richardson [Flickr]

A December photo shows Astani's Concerto tower (black, mid-right) rising next to Hanover's 717 W. Olympic (white, right). Both sit inside the proposed Signage District.

Just over a year ago, the LA Times' David Zahniser wrote about developer Sonny Astani's dream to place a 14-story animated sign on the side of his high-rise project at 9th and Figueroa. The inspiration? "Blade Runner."

Sonny Astani walked into a Westwood movie theater in 1985 and saw the film that changed his life: “Blade Runner,” the science-fiction tale that imagined a dystopian Los Angeles where jet-powered cars zoom past skyscrapers covered with enormous, cinematic advertisements.

Decades later, the Iranian-born businessman is determined to bring some of those futuristic images to life. His plan? Attach an animated sign 14-stories tall on the 33-story condominium project he is building in downtown L.A.

Since then, the "Blade Runner" association has become a dirty word in City Hall, but the basic plan continues to move forward, forcing the City to tackle the fading distinction between signage and architecture.

In the next few weeks, City Council's Planning and Land Use Management committee will consider CF 09-0189, the Figueroa and Olympic Signage District. The proposal for the district passed the City Planning Commission unanimously on December 11.

The ordinance allows the sort of signage planned for Concerto, but only closer to the ground, where its visibility would be limited. It also provides strict guidelines for how much light the signage could emit, what streets it could front onto and how dynamic the content can be.

Though Astani's proposal garnered all the headlines, the proposed district includes all of the block bounded by Figueroa, 9th, Flower and Olympic, encompassing the Concerto project, a proposed tower housing classrooms and residences for nearby FIDM, Hanover's 717 W. Olympic and the historic Variety Arts Center. Ultimately, the three residential projects on the block will create 890 new units.

Hanover's residential tower at 717 W. Olympic includes signage areas, but has not been able to display any advertisements since opening in early 2008. The current signs (advertising leasing for the building) are simply holding space until the district is approved.

A Gray Area Between Architecture and Signage

While there are other signage district proposals scattered throughout the city, Astani's project demands particular attention because of the way the signage fits into the building. "The signage for these buildings has been designed in conjunction with the architectural design of the buildings," zoning consultant Craig Lawson told the Planning Commission in December. "These are not signs that are being slapped on after the fact."

Though not speaking specifically to this project, Councilwoman Jan Perry raised this issue last month while speaking to blogdowntown regarding the Planning Department's proposed rewrite of the signage ordinance. "Is it a sign? Is it architecture? Is it part of the structure?"

While the proposal does contain some traditional LED signs, the most distinctive feature of the Concerto towers would come via what the ordinance calls "integral electronic displays," LED strips one-inch thick placed six inches apart. The space would allow residents of the towers to still look out of their windows, while also acting as sunscreens to reduce the amount of electricity required to cool the units. A similar display was recently announced for L.A. Live's hotel tower.

No Longer "Blade Runner"

The ordinance passed by the Planning Commission moves the integrated display down the building, requiring that the signage occur within the first 150 feet of the building's height. Given typical residential construction, that limits the display to the building's first dozen floors. Astani's original plans had called for the display to begin at that height.

Also in the document are limits on the amount of movement and the types of transitions that can take place between images. Fades and bleeds are in; jump cuts are out. Pans are restricted to seven and a half feet per second.

All electronic signage would be required turned off at a given time, though debate persists over whether that time should be midnight or 2am.

Furthermore, the district would be subdivided into two smaller areas. Electronic signs and the integral displays would be allowed only on Figueroa, with much more limited signage permitted on Flower, Olympic and 9th. A point of debate during the Planning Commission meeting was a proposed electronic sign for the FIDM tower, which would be forbidden by the ordinance. The school intends the sign to display information on events taking place inside, and not to exhibit outside advertisements.

Part of an Overall Signage Debate

Despite an eventual 7-0 vote, the Planning Commission meeting demonstrated how intense the debate on signage has become. Consideration of the item lasted two hours and eight minutes.

The City Planning Commission considered a new citywide signage ordinance on January 22, but held off on a final decision. That ordinance would prohibit electronic signs, but would still allow for the creation of special rules like those proposed for the Figueroa and Olympic Signage District.

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