The community has spoken – and it appears they have influenced the leaders of San Jose.
Faced with overwhelming opposition from residents across the city, San Jose officials are quick to put the brakes on a year-long plan to allow about 75 new digital billboards on private lots along highways, as well as some smaller signs on private buildings and public land in the city’s downtown area .
In a surprising turnaround, Councilor Raul Peralez, who has been the vocal supporter of the new digital signage plan in San Jose for years, called on the city to “completely halt” the proposal and remove it from the city’s list of priorities – one Distinction that had existed for the last four years in a row.
The entire city council is expected to discuss Peralez’s proposal and decide whether or not to drop the poster plan during a Thursday afternoon meeting.
In a memo released Tuesday afternoon, Peralez said his original intention to allow new digital signs was “to generate new revenue and improve the quality of life in some of our poorest neighborhoods that live with the status quo of dirty paper billboards”. Given the coronavirus pandemic and in response to community feedback, he now believes there are bigger and more pressing matters that deserve the city’s attention instead.
“At this point, we should continue to focus on the Herculean task of recovering our city,” he said in the memo.
A city-wide ban on new billboards has been in place for more than 35 years. Proponents of the ban have long argued that billboards create visual problems, distract drivers, and negatively impact the environment and surrounding wildlife.
Billboard industry executives and lobbyists have spent the past half a decade pushing San Jose to lift the ban, arguing that new digital signs could help keep the city energized.
In particular, Peralez and his team were in regular contact with representatives of the poster industry during this time, according to the email records of this news organization. In some cases, employees in Peralez’s office have even received input from industry lobbyists to develop the language for his billboard proposals, records show.
The councilor’s new stance – as outlined in Tuesday’s memo – was revealed just a day after the San Jose grassroots No Digital Billboards petitioned city leaders with more than 600 signatures against the proposal.
The city’s planning department also released an online survey last week asking residents to contribute to the poster proposal. By Tuesday, at least 80% of respondents had replied that they were “strongly against” building new digital billboards along the city’s highways, the city said.
John Miller, one of the leading representatives of the No Digital Billboards San Jose group, described the latest developments as “gratifying”.
“We always felt that the vast majority of San Jose residents would object if they knew more about it, and I think we proved ourselves right in that notion,” Miller said.
The city council divided the updating of the city’s signing ordinance and thus the lifting of a decade-long ban on new billboards into two phases.
In September 2018, the council completed the first phase of the update at 9: 2 to allow digital signs in 17 city-owned locations that can accommodate up to 22 signs. The measure was passed with almost no input from the residents, as they believed the city did not have sufficient reach for the community.
More than two years later, contracts for companies to erect these signs are yet to be placed after sign companies protested against certain city regulations and delays due to the pandemic.
Peralez recommends that the city push ahead with its plans to award the contracts for the first phase in the coming months and leave this work “unchanged”, but supporters of the city’s poster ban also want to prevent this from coming into force.
As part of the proposed phase two change, which Peralez plans to postpone immediately, San Jose would allow private owners to erect freestanding billboard structures in approximately 75 freeway-facing locations, in addition to an undisclosed number of digital signs on private property. Buildings in the city center and buildings in the public priority area such as light poles and public toilets.
The second phase proposal is that billboard companies wishing to erect a sign on a freeway will have to dismantle at least four decrepit paper billboards, although the downtown signs will not require removal.
Unlike the first phase, in which San Jose will generate advertising revenue from the signs on public buildings, the city would make little or no profit with the second part of the plan.
San Jose City Council was due to discuss the proposal during a Thursday meeting on the city’s top priorities for the coming year – also known as the City Roadmap – but Deputy City Administrator Kip Harkness wrote in a memo Monday that the matter would not be answered any longer appear on the agenda.
“For the purposes of the City Roadmap, this electronic billboard policy work is expected to be substantially complete by the end of the 2020-2021 fiscal year and therefore not need to appear in the draft roadmap for the 2021-2022 fiscal year,” he said wrote.
Despite the expected completion date in the summer, Peralez said he wanted to fully postpone the plan before further work was done on it. He still plans to ask the rest of the council to endorse his plan at Thursday’s meeting.
Mayor Sam Liccardo, who wanted to keep the billboard ban from the start and voted against the first phase of the plan in 2018, wrote in his own memo, submitted Tuesday before Peralez, that the city must understand the implications of the first phase before proceeding the second part of the proposal.
“At best an eyesore and at worst a dangerous distraction for drivers, I have labeled such signage as a promotional giveaway with no clear public benefit to the community or taxpayers,” he wrote. “… We shouldn’t be surprised that the residents have started a drum beat from the vocal opposition, along with environmental and other non-profit organizations.”