Levitt: Digital billboards may match for Denver, however should not outline San Jose

In 2015, city guides seeking to define the future of San Jose traveled to Denver and were fascinated by the digital signs that the city of Rocky Mountain had decided to make the downtown theater district “more exciting”.

The bright, shiny digital billboards and seductive promise to the Denver government to generate income from advertising sparked a process that San Jose city officials have campaigned for over the past five years – to make our city more like Denver .

Now that future has come. The San Jose City Council, urged by the poster industry to go well beyond the original concept, is proposing to allow up to 90 large-format digital billboards to be installed along streets and gates into the downtown area – which will affect all citizens and citizens will come visitors to San Jose for decades.

The next time you admire the backdrop of the city with its beautiful foothills or the growing skyline, imagine the same scene but with intrusive digital billboards that flaunt bright advertising day and night.

Worse still, San Jose appears to have set up a “sign intensification zone” in the downtown area where the number of new digital or conventional billboards is unlimited. We’re not talking about signs like the ones in the Convention Center or the California Theater highlighting events in these locations. We’re talking about adding new signs with flashing and moving advertisements for products and services, from freestanding masts to building facades to public street furniture.

Think of our downtown today and try to imagine a digital advertising dystopia that could easily overwhelm and negate all of the positive work that has been done to create our new sense of place. In fact, almost nothing will destroy a place’s distinctive character faster than uncontrolled signs and billboards.

It doesn’t have to be that way, and it hasn’t been that way for the past 35 years. New billboards have been banned in San Jose since 1985. At the time, Planning Director Gary Schoennauer said: “The ban is an expression of a strong commitment by the city council to beautify the city.”

In a former Mercury News article, planning officials were quoted as saying that the ban would “encourage the revitalization of the city center and major thoroughfares.”

The Art Commission sent a motion to the City Council stating that they “support the Planning Department’s report on the restriction of signs in major downtown areas and corridor accesses to the city and recommend conducting a study to advertise on buses and street furniture eliminate.” Even the religious community spoke out in favor of supporting the Billboard ban.

35 years ago our leaders understood what we should understand today. San Jose is not Denver. We don’t have a theater district or Times Square. We’re not nearly the same urban scale. We are a small-town big city with a pipeline of exciting development projects and a leadership role as an environmentally conscious city.

We, the people of San Jose, should define San Jose from the same leadership perspective and set our own course for urban planning, again shielded from the stingy poster lobby with the reinstatement of the 1985 ban on new billboards.

And we of all people should never fall for the trick that income from electronic poster advertising (the opposite of art) should be used to finance art and cultural initiatives.

Let’s stop spending taxpayers money paving the way for digital billboards and revitalizing the city’s resources to address the higher priorities and real-world problems we face. San Jose should be smarter than Denver.

Les Levitt is a founding member of No Digital Billboards in San Jose and has been based in District 3 for 30 years.

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