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L.A. City Council approves array of lights, graphic displays on proposed downtown Wilshire Grand towers

March 29, 2011 |  1:03 pm

The Los Angeles City Council voted Tuesday to throw its support behind an elaborate package of new flashing signs, illuminated graphics and moving text for two planned downtown skyscrapers, ignoring critics who warned that such brightly lighted images would degrade the look of the city.

Councilman Bill Rosendahl cast the lone vote against the plan.

Minutes after the initial vote, the City Council reconsidered the sign district. During that second vote, Rosendahl agreed to stay out of the room, making the decision unanimous and avoiding the need for a vote next week.

“They didn’t need to wait another week. It was a done deal,” he said.

The council created a new one-block sign district for the planned 45-story reconstruction of the Wilshire Grand Hotel and accompanying 65-story office tower.

The sign district will allow various kinds of digital signs on the first 10 floors of the two towers. The tops of the two skyscrapers will offer digital signs advertising the buildings’ owner and major tenants. And on dozens of stories in between, LED lights would display noncommercial images such as flowers and vines that would fade in and out.

Councilman Ed Reyes praised the “architectural lighting” scheme, saying the graphics on the upper floors should not be confused with other brightly lighted billboards. “It is art. And I believe it adds more culture” to Los Angeles, he said.

Added Councilman Dennis Zine: “I am amazed at how anyone could be opposed to this.”

The sign district is the first to be approved since the 9th Circuit Court of Appeal upheld the city’s ban on new billboards last year. That law allowed sections of the city to be carved out as exceptions to the citywide billboard ban, as long as the improvements helped to eliminate blight and address traffic safety.

In casting the lone opposing vote, Rosendahl said the city should have found a way to share in the financial proceeds of the new digital advertising on the two buildings. “We don’t have a dime of revenue out of those, and those folks who put up those billboards are making money hand over fist,” he said.

The council already agreed last week to give developer Korean Air and its subsidiary, Hanjin International Corp., a tax break of up to $79 million for the two towers over the next 25 years. On Tuesday, council members also agreed to allow the developers to purchase “floor area” permits from the city’s Convention Center, which will allow the proposed office tower to be taller than the zoning allows.

An array of union leaders packed the council chamber to speak in favor of the project. Maria Elena Durazo, the head of the powerful Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, an organization that has worked to elect several of the council’s members, said the proposal would create roughly 7,300 construction jobs and include safeguards for hotel employees who would be displaced while the existing 16-story hotel is demolished and a new hotel is built.

“This project is going to bring a lot of hope to a lot of members in our community,” said David Kersh, government affairs representative for the Carpenters Contractors Cooperation Committee, a construction trade group.

Opponents of the sign district said they did not oppose the hotel’s redevelopment, but said new flashing signs and images would barrage the public and, in some cases, distract motorists. “Digital billboards do not solve the unemployment in the city. Digital billboards will not increase tourism in our city,” said Jan Book, a resident of Marina del Rey who voiced exasperation with the digital signs that are located near her home.
The sign district for the Wilshire Grand project is so complicated that it is divided into four vertical levels and three geographic subsections. While some lighted signs will change every eight seconds, others will change every four minutes. Other sections will feature streaming text.

The Wilshire Grand complex has been backed enthusiastically by Councilwoman Jan Perry, a 2013 mayoral candidate who pushed hard for approval of the signs and images sought by Korean Air and its partner, Thomas Properties Group.

Perry persuaded her colleagues to double the size of the scrolling news ribbons that would be displayed on the first three floors of the towers. Between the fourth and 10th floors, Perry and her colleagues tripled the amount of signage allowed by the Planning Commission, from 7,100 square feet to 30,900 square feet.

And on the upper stories, Perry won approval of the noncommercial architectural lighting. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa’s appointees on the Planning Commission voted in December to oppose that lighting.

-- David Zahniser at Los Angeles City Hall

Photo: The Wilshire Grand Hotel located at Wilshire Boulevard and 7th Street in downtown Los Angeles will be torn down to make way for the Wilshire Grand Project, which will feature two skyscrapers that include a top-to-bottom array of lights, images and advertisements unlike anything now on the downtown skyline. Credit: Al Seib / Los Angeles Times