Digitally Ad-Wrapped Skyscrapers Coming to L.A.?

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 Jan Perry opens a new front in the Los Angeles billboard wars

The Los Angeles City Council is widely expected to approve a controversial precedent on March 29 when it backs a plan by a Korean multinational corporation to create two downtown skyscrapers, the "Wilshire Grand," whose 12-story base will be wrapped with 5-story-high, ultrabright digital advertising billboards.

Ignoring opposition from Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa's appointees to the City Planning Commission, on March 11 City Council members Paul Krekorian and Ed Reyes embraced a plan for huge billboards on the Wilshire Grand project. They relied on the argument that the huge advertisements, which would be 12 times larger than big digital billboards erected two years ago on main streets, including La Brea Avenue, are not "billboards" at all, and thus don't fly in the face of Angelenos' opposition to more billboard ads, or run afoul of the City Council's own 2002 ban on new billboards.

The billboards to appear on two skyscrapers proposed at Wilshire Grand, located at Figueroa and Seventh downtown, will be illuminated with several million ultrabright LED lightbulbs, whose glow is visible for miles.

"What is being proposed by the developers is not a billboard," Councilwoman Jan Perry assured Krekorian and Reyes as they sat on the City Council's Planning and Land Use Management Committee meeting on March 11. She told them that 5-story-tall product ads aren't billboards because they'll be "fully integrated into the curtain wall of the project."

Meet Los Angeles' newest architecture critic, 2013 mayoral candidate Perry.

Under her plan, which is expected to be backed by City Council President Eric Garcetti and other close City Council allies of the outdoor advertising industry, the base of Wilshire Grand's 45-story and 65-story towers will feature a three-sided, 30,000-square-foot band of "programmable" LED lights.

Both skyscrapers' outer skin from bottom to top will also be embedded with "architectural lighting" – purportedly to show off the buildings.

Bill Roschen, president of the Planning Commission, can't name another building in the United States with the same digital skin technology at this scale, which will entirely drape the buildings. He calls it a national precedent that has not been fully aired in Los Angeles – yet it is moving forward despite that. He wants a discussion  on its overall impact on Los Angeles, "Not just for this building but the entire skyline. The fact that they can use these giant images – what does that mean?"

Many see the digital skin as a Trojan horse that Hanjin can use to pressure the City Council to accede to what billboard activist Dennis Hathaway says the owners originally sought: massive ads from top to bottom. Hathaway, of the Coalition to Ban Billboard Blight, warns: "I would not be surprised if sometime in the future, the building owners … will come back to the city for an entitlement to actually display commercial advertising on those towers. Because everything's in place for them to be able to do it."

As the Weekly reported in November 2008, Garcetti's avid backing of a 2006 deal to let big outdoor advertisers turn their old billboards into digital ones led to the erection of 101 digital billboards across Los Angeles.

The City Council handed firms like Clear Channel Outdoor and CBS Outdoor permission to erect 840 piercingly bright, 672-square-foot signs citywide – and the council agreed that not a single public hearing was required.

One hundred and one digital billboards popped up in Los Angeles, each powered by 449,280 LED bulbs that can be seen for four miles. Some shine through the drawn curtains of buildings, throwing eerie green, blue, red and yellow light into bedrooms and offices.

After a citywide outcry, Garcetti admitted, "We made a mistake."

The courts agreed in October 2009, when Los Angeles Judge Terry Green called City Hall's digital billboard deal "poison" and threw it out.

Now, yet another precedent, loved by the big outdoor advertisers, appears to be in the offing in L.A.

Milo Hanke, president of San Francisco Beautiful, which has successfully fought garish billboards in that city, says, "In the end, you're going to have cockroaches, billboards and, maybe, Cher."

The March 11 vote by Krekorian and Reyes utilizes a much-criticized 2010 Ninth Circuit Court ruling that L.A. city officials have the power to create special "sign districts" in which the City Council's ban on billboards does not apply.

Krekorian and Reyes agreed to exempt megacorporation Hanjin from the citywide 2002 ban by granting the firm a "sign district."

A spokesman for the city attorney says the two Hanjin skyscrapers take up a city block, thus qualifying as a Signage Supplemental Use District.

City Council leaders have said sign districts are good for highly urbanized areas such as Hollywood, where flashy billboards might enhance the surroundings.

But if approved by the City Council, this new deal will open another front in the billboard wars, with developers of proposed megaprojects such as the Metro-Universal City development seeking to cash in on huge ad revenues by having their projects redefined as sign districts.

Already, the move is coming in for criticism.

"Well, if you have enough money, you can apparently purchase your own sign district," notes Consumer Watchdog president Jamie Court.

Respected architects and developers point to problems as well. Gwynne Pugh was a partner in Pugh + Scarpa, the architectural firm honored by the American Institute of Architects as Firm of the Year in 2010. He's a planning commissioner for the city of Santa Monica and heads the Gwynne Pugh Urban Studio.

"If [the lighting] is for the purposes of art and decoration alone, then it becomes a part of the aesthetic," he tells the Weekly. "But the moment you are asking people to look at it for the purposes of selling a product, it becomes a billboard."

A devout urbanist, Pugh believes that sign districts have an important place within the city's landscape. But, he says, "There's nothing worse than spot zoning. … It smacks of special favors."

Longtime L.A. developer Jim Suhr says sign districts in L.A. should encompass a distinct area, not be a single building or project, "because what happens here is that property owner X down the street is getting some of the impacts – and none of the benefits," he says.

For that reason, Pugh predicts lawsuits against the city. Suhr concurs: "Various buildings on either side" of the two ad-draped skyscrapers will "want a cut of the cake, too."

Both Perry and Reyes say they hope to turn the area south of the Wilshire Grand, and adjacent to L.A. Live, into a sign district, and Hanjin is contributing $400,000 for an Environmental Impact Report to study that idea. Hanjin's ad-wrapped skyscrapers could be viewed as "anchors for a proposed sign district," Reyes says.

But the underlying issue is the vast amount of new ad dollars that will flow to wealthy L.A. skyscraper and building developers.

San Francisco Beautiful's Hanke, who heads a wealth management company and is not exactly antibusiness, calls digitally ad-wrapped buildings "a form of blight that discourages healthy development that adds to your tax base."

He says reaping such advertising revenue from the outside of buildings becomes more valuable than leasing the space inside the building.

"Are the buildings being built for buildings, or for signs?" Consumer Watchdog's Court asks of the Wilshire Grand project.

For instance, Manhattan's famed triangular building, One Times Square, is cited as a model for Hollywood's and L.A. Live's flashy future. But for years, One Times Square was essentially uninhabited. The flashing ads on the outside were the real payoff, not the rental of spaces inside.

Michael Woo, an L.A. city planning commissioner and dean of the College of Environmental Design at Cal Poly Pomona, fears developments that are mere "platforms for advertising instead of the architecture of the buildings themselves."

He's not opposed to dramatic lighting to enhance the skyline, but warns of developers who "start depending on the revenue from billboards to finance a building – and that seems to be a trend in L.A. these days."

AEG revealed on Feb. 17 that it wants outdoor advertising around the proposed NFL stadium downtown, Farmers Field, to help pay off bonds to finance it. The lucrative "additional exterior signage rights" would grace not just the stadium but "new parking structures," and even "the existing Convention Center" owned by the public. It's gotten little attention from the City Council and media, who have focused on AEG's plan to reap ticket taxes and parking fees, among other things, to pay off an estimated $350 million in stadium bonds.

Court and Hanke warn of the specter of largely empty, but heavily billboarded, buildings elsewhere in the city as City Council members permit special sign districts that boost earnings for outdoor advertising firms – who in turn support their political campaigns.

The Wilshire Grand sign district, Court says, "is a big 'For Sale' sign that Jan [Perry's] putting up for her mayoral campaign."

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