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Billboard firm offers to take down some, put up others -- including 50 digital signs

July 15, 2009 |  5:45 pm

Los Angeles City Councilman Richard Alarcon called on his colleagues today to pursue an elaborate swap that could allow a single company to erect 450 new billboards — including 50 digital signs — in exchange for the removal of thousands of others.

Lamar Advertising approached Alarcon with the plan, offering to take down as many as 4,000 of its existing billboards, some of which are among the smallest used by the outdoor advertising industry.

Alarcon said the proposal would eliminate blight while providing more money for city coffers. “What I’m hoping is that we can find a way to place the digitals on city property and we can then get some of the revenue,” said Alarcon, who represents northeast San Fernando Valley neighborhoods.

Still, one anti-billboard activist called the proposal an attempt to keep the city from approving a stricter sign law. “To me it’s blackmail from the billboard [companies],” said Lisa Sarkin, who serves on the Studio City Neighborhood Council. “I think they fear that eventually we’re going to get it right.”

Last year, the council approved a temporary ban on new billboards while it attempted to rewrite its sign ordinance, a response to a backlash over its approval of a legal settlement allowing two companies to convert as many as 840 billboards to illuminated, digital formats.

A draft ordinance reviewed by the council last month named 21 locations where new billboard districts could be created. Alarcon voiced dismay that none were in his district, which includes Sylmar and Pacoima.

Lamar Advertising purchased the holdings of Vista Media in May 2008, taking ownership of about 4,500 signs. While the Westside is now known for its towering digital billboards, other sections of the city are dotted with Vista’s smaller 6-foot-by-12-foot signs — sometimes referred to as “junior posters.”

In older neighborhoods such as Boyle Heights, Pacoima and Historic Filipinotown, Vista’s smaller signs have been attached to the sides of stores and residential garages and even placed in front of single-family homes on commercial streets.

Under the proposal, Lamar’s replacement billboards would probably be considerably larger, officials said.

Before and after the purchase by Lamar, 500 of Vista’s signs were taken down as part of a legal settlement with the city, said Lamar Vice President and General Manager Ray Baker. The settlement allowed Vista to put up newer “City Light panels” — backlit signs.

About 100 of those were installed before passage of the billboard moratorium, Baker said. If a billboard swap is approved by the council, Vista’s settlement agreement will be “null and void,” he added.

Alarcon said he does not yet know what kind of trade should be allowed for new digital billboards. But he said the ultimate goal of the proposal is to reduce both the number of signs and the overall square footage of outdoor advertising.

-- David Zahniser

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