June 1, 2011 - From the May, 2011 issue

AIA|LA Billboard 2011 Roundtable: Who Arbitrates Design?

The L.A. chapter of the American Institute of Architects recently held a roundtable discussion to address the issue of billboards in the city of L.A.-an issue that straddles the arenas of policy and aesthetics in ways that have vexed communities and policy makers for decades. The roundtable was informal, but TPR has excerpted highlights of the gathering to bring readers the disparate and insightful views of architects and planners regarding a citywide billboard policy for L.A.


Stuart Magruder

There are all kinds of regulations on private property, but I have trouble with that as a question.

...You start thinking about, of course, Blade Runner, and we need to ask: Is this where we want to go? Maybe it is in some areas, but maybe not in others. I'd love to talk about crafting where these things belong and where they don't belong.

Stuart Magruder, AIA|LA Vice President and President-Elect: To frame the AIA|LA roundtable this evening, I suggest we focus on the aesthetic issues-and downplay some of the policy issues and the nitty-gritty, which I'm sure we'll get into. I want to start, given that we are architects and planners, with the visual issues.

To guide the roundtable, allow me to distinguish between "place signs" and billboards. A place sign, I suggest, is the Hollywood sign, the LAX sign, or the numbers at the CalTrans building. Place signs remind you where you are. They orient you in the city. Billboards or advertising, on the other hand, are different. They are meant to disorient you in a sense-make you think about something besides where you are. It encourages you to buy something.

Billboards and place signs are very different, and I think they are often confused in this debate about advertising and buildings and advertising and the city fabric.

Some people, designers I respect, will say that some blank walls look better with billboards. I don't agree, I think billboards of this scale are really very strong elements of this city. They dematerialize the architecture. It's a technological determinism. We can do a lot with lights and signs that we couldn't do before. We can do a slide show; we can wrap a whole façade of a building with an image. The question is, should we? Should we allow the city to be wrapped that way?..

...You start thinking about, of course, Blade Runner, and we need to ask: Is this where we want to go? Maybe it is in some areas, but maybe not in others. I'd love to talk about crafting where these things belong and where they don't belong.

I'm not so sure today that a civic discussion is happening, or if has happened, perhaps it is just not being implemented.

The last little point is really scale. Times Square, kind of like L.A. Live, is a space you go into and you are surrounded by advertising, and that's great. That's a little bit different than something that is projecting out. Think of the billboard and the graphics wrapping the theater on the 110 in Downtown-that is a much different experience then where it is projected a long distance. It's a real question of scale.

Carlos Madrid, Assoc. AIA: There are so many facets to this roundtable topic. Personally, I love seeing a super graphic on a building. Do I want to see graphics on a building? Sure, I'd love that. It's fantastic.

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But who becomes the arbiter of taste, the arbiter of style? What becomes too much-when it becomes so densely layered that it's not legible? What is applied, and what is integral with the art? There is an applied component, and that's what we've seen up until the 20th century. Then we started to see integrated technology; where the building is a light bulb. Is it art; is it advertising; is it selling? What if it's just the Apple or the iPod original graphic, where it's the silhouette of a person? Maybe it said Apple on the bottom, but is that art?

David Abel AIA|LA Public Boardmember: I'd like to suggest, to kick-start our roundtable discussion, that this matter is none of the pubic sector's business. I assume billboards and/or graphics are on private property, and I posit that whatever the owner/developer wants to with their building is permissible, if it makes economic sense. There ought to be no controls.

Mike Woo, L.A. City Planning Commissioner: After David's provocative motion goes down, I'm going to offer an alternative motion, which is that the entire public urban environment is in the public domain and that all advertising is against the public interest and should not be allowed anywhere in the city, except perhaps by permit here and there, and only if it's heavily taxed. In general, outdoor advertising is toxic, it's bad for the urban environment, wastes energy, and, in many cases, I could make the argument that it is anti-architecture.

It is a rationale for allowing mediocre architecture and then prettifying it by putting advertising on it.

David Martin, AIA: They established the City of Lights in Paris in 1690. Lighting is part of the public realm and it is part of the excitement of the urban experience. Let me offer an empirical observation along the same line. I worked on one project that was very heavily billboarded, probably to the degree of Hollywood. There were a number of times I stood on the roof and looked out at Hollywood, and we see the kind of signs that were put a very long time ago on specific buildings, and I frequently just wondered why the signage on the W Hollywood looks so bogus and so ridiculous. The rest of the stuff out there looked pretty good. And the other billboards were placed in a time when there was a media vacuum, and those signs were erected for specific views, and really proved the city at large. The stuff on the W added nothing. In fact it looks ridiculous. It really was an excuse to turn this building into an armature for some really oversized and unnecessary ads, including the one with the big W on it.

David Abel: The conversation could just focus on taste, but the thrust of my motion is, who should be the arbiter, who should be in charge of a signage policy? I'm suggesting that it's the private sector, because the public sector can't manage this-even the AIA-LA can't agree on a policy; we don't have a consensus here. Why have spotty policy or no policy that becomes a policy. Why don't we just say: it's the private sector's responsibility; it's private property.

John Kaliski, AIA: There are all kinds of regulations on private property, but I have trouble with that as a question. The reason I have trouble with your proposition as the question for our roundtable is that it perpetuates the idea that the conversation, however imperfect our codes and zoning and stuff like that, is a frozen idea that doesn't exist in time.

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There is a long history of sign regulation, not only in the city of Los Angeles but in all cities, which reflects a consensus among the public at large about the regulation of signs. I would argue that, at least for AIA, even if I were to philosophically to agree with that position, it's kind of a ludicrous position because it denies the fact that there is a 50-year, actually almost 100-year conversation about developing a consensus about what the city is supposed to be. While you do have to find a first question, I'm not sure that's the right first question...

...Look at the history of signage in big cities. Part of the reason you saw sign controls introduced in cities in the 1930s and 40s was precisely because, even as printed matter, it got put up on everything and painted on everything. Cities historically saw some rationale for controlling it. Some have been more successful than others.

But I agree completely that it is an arms race. Before I came to this meeting, I was talked to various real estate people. Every single one of them said, if it's the right location, the economics matter. That is a reality, and I don't know that that is going away soon.

Jane Usher, L.A. City Attorney's Office and former L.A. Planning Commission president: We're missing the opportunity. We've scared pretty much everybody with the sign districts we produced and the unrealized promise of those districts. I'm not an architect, so I'd be curious to know whether anybody thinks we've realized the promise of any of the sign districts that we've authorized. Something like Shanghai-Ginza or Times Square-something dramatic, with a sense of place that's really quite exceptional. Even in Hollywood-there is a bushel basket worth of signs in Hollywood.

But I look at the W, and I say, "Oh my gosh, that's it? That's all we could achieve?" I looked at you guys as being the beacon that could get us somewhere better. If you could come tell Tanner (Blackman), Mike (Woo), Bill (Roshcen), and me: "Here are some rules that if you write it this way, you'll realize the promise"-whatever that is, I would love to try that.

John Kalinski: The city of West Hollywood, maybe not successfully all the time, has actively encouraged signs and created signs on Sunset Boulevard. They've tried with varying success to make that happen. In essence, they have a district policy, and they pursued it.

I'm not sure exactly why the district issue has been so difficult in Los Angeles, except for the fact that the city of Los Angeles has been engaged in a running battle with sign companies and because the City Council has not been consistent in how they have adjudicated their signage decisions. It's been better over the last couple of years, but for a very long time, every time they tried to do something, an individual council person for an individual council person's reasons would take actions that would undermine a larger collective idea.

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My sense is that there has been a little bit of a stabilization of all of that, but we still don't have a planning policy that applies district rules that everyone will agree to. It's still floating around someplace.

Jane Usher: The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals adores this issue. They just love to talk about signs and the First Amendment. Before I came this evening, I read the transcripts from our two latest appearances before the Ninth Circuit on signs. When you read them, if you have the backdrop of it, it's as if the Ninth Circuit is saying to L.A., "Yes, sign districts can make sense. We agree. But we're concerned you are you going to take one step to far, city of L.A. We are concerned you are going to be disingenuous about your regulations (i.e., that you're going to limit signage and then grant exceptions irrespective of your regulations). We therefore are concerned that we are we going to catch you up in a mousetrap."

The court is not resolving the above, but for sure they are putting all their concerns on the table.

Here's how I believe the courts talk about it-the Ninth Circuit and all the courts around the country. (These questions are not confined to the California courts.) They say: if you are a city, you are allowed to ban all commercial signage. That is not violating the First Amendment. But if you are going to step away from that policy-and that is how pretty much every city does do it; they start with a ban, and they give good reasons for a ban that goes back to the conversation about quality of life and aesthetics and backyards and so forth. The courts say, "If you want to step away, of course you have to be even handed about your exceptions. Each one has to be rational and justified. It has to make some sort of contextual sense."

This is the realm where architects and designers could help the city so much, that is, to say where it makes sense as distinct from where it doesn't make sense. Your expertise would be invaluable, and I'd even like to take your expertise to the Ninth Circuit so they could understand that this isn't whimsical. This is planning; this is thoughtful. That's how the Ninth Circuit talks about it: "OK, we'll take those billboards down because that wasn't a sign district, but we hear you just did this Wilshire Grand thing. Tell us what that was all about." And then we have a story to tell them. That's where we are right now.

John Kaliski: What makes this issue particularly difficult is that in the absence of a reformed citywide off-site sign policy, the continuing willingness of the City Council to establish individual sign districts on a case by case basis, regardless of their merit, is undermining the capacity of the city to address the type of questions that we are talking about today.

Because eventually, someone will look at that as a pattern of exceptions from a legal standpoint, and they will say, "City of Los Angeles, you're inconsistent. You actually aren't following your own rationales." It's critical, however it's done, that the sign district idea and other types of ideas about technological incorporation be made clear. Real vigilance has to given in terms of going to the various people in the planning process, and saying "You know what, if you really want to change that, change it at the General Plan level. Don't change it for Joe Developer who thinks he has a better idea." Otherwise we're just going to be back here in five years arguing the same thing again.

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Jane Usher: John, I think it was you that talked about how this has to be a living policy. It can't be stagnant. The city changes. So, Tanner and the Planning Department tried to produce a policy a couple of years ago that said, "Here are the sign districts. Here they are." And that got shot down because we hadn't built up a reservoir of trust.

John Kaliski: It's also an educative process. A lot of the people who proposed signs did not have a very good grip on what the potential of the sign district could be. This is where the architecture community has a different opinion than people who come forward with good intentions but, for the most part, are just against everything. Our voice actually has not been there consistently enough in that regard to say, "OK, even taking your issue with the super graphics, there should be a place for super graphics if it's done right." But it's gotten buried because we haven't had a position that we could articulate.

Tanner Blackman, L.A. City Planning Department: Every time the City Council makes exceptions to the rule, we end up getting in trouble. [Wilshire Grand] was the first sign district approved in a couple years-since these discussions were big in 2009. I was working on the regulations for what Sign Districts would be in the future that were not yet adopted (apparently the Sign Ordinance is coming back to life to PLUM in the near future).

One thing I kept trying to hammer home with people was that what we know of sign districts so far in Los Angeles arises out of egregious signage on individual developments; but there are other possibilities. A sign district is the only mechanism that currently exists on the code to do a mural district. Murals have been illegal in the city of Los Angeles on private property since 2002. Another thing is the historic sign district along Broadway, where it is the only mechanism by which you could recreate historic signage that a 1986 sign code doesn't allow. There are other possibilities or visioning of what a sign district could be.

David Abel: Let me just say that, between the two propositions that were offered this evening, mine and Mike Woo's, I'm comfortable in forecasting that Mike's would be defeated if a vote was now taken.

Listening to this well-informed discussion, I'm wondering, who in Los Angeles today is a leading and credible advocate for the built environment? My conclusion: Such a voice and vision remains elusive in the city. From whom in L.A., and when, will we find a unifying vision and enforceable, programmatic leadership?

© 2014 The Planning Report | David Abel, Publisher, ABL, Inc.