The battle towards digital billboards in San Jose is heating up

February 15, 2021

A local grassroots organization is calling on lawmakers to end plans to set up electronic billboards across San Jose.

In 2018, the San Jose City Council approved Phase 1 of a two-part plan to increase the number of digital signs in the city. Phase 1 would allow up to 22 billboards on 17 urban locations.

The council is expected to discuss phase 2 at a study meeting on February 25th. Phase 2 would enable freestanding billboards on privately owned properties along highways and allow businesses to digitally sign private buildings in the city center.

San Jose has long made a point of bringing billboards to public property as a source of income.

However, John Miller, co-founder of the No Digital Billboards grassroots organization in San Jose, wants the city to de-prioritize billboards and hold up Phase 2.

Miller claims the city cares about the billboard lobby instead of looking out for the residents’ interests.

Proponents of the plan, including Scott Knies, executive director of the San Jose Downtown Association, look forward to the visual variety.

“We’ve always seen decent digital signs in downtown San Jose that can add color, light, and excitement to the downtown area,” Knies said.

The city campaigned for the poster plan to generate revenue for the city and to eradicate the “plague” caused by unsightly traditional signs. In order to set a new digital sign on a property facing the motorway, the proposal suggests that four traditional billboards must be removed.

However, a Phase 2 element would allow companies to put more digital signs on downtown buildings – without removing old billboards.

An ongoing debate

Martina Davis of the city’s planning department said electronic billboards could create a “sense of place” and “visual excitement” in San Jose, but Miller and others are not convinced.

He said digital signs with “unlimited advertising messages” would negatively change the appearance of the city, destroy its historical character and harm the environment.

San José Spotlight reported on community opposition to digital billboards back in July. Residents fear light pollution could affect the night sky, affect bird migration and distract drivers.

Davis said a major benefit to having more billboards is that it would benefit the city financially. For every new billboard on public land, the city could generate up to 35% of a billboard company’s advertising revenue, said spokeswoman for economic development, Elisabeth Handler.

In contrast to Phase 1, Phase 2 – which enables digital signs on private property – does not bring in any additional money for the city, so critics like Miller wonder why the city would move to Phase 2 in the first place. He said billboard companies were to blame.

“In 2014, the year before the city made it a priority, it wasn’t like the city council was getting phone calls from constituents saying what this city really needs is digital billboards,” Miller said. “Now they have phone calls and people knocking on their door from the billboard lobby trying to change the existing laws because digital billboards are so much more profitable to them than traditional billboards.”

Earlier this month, lobbyist Pete Carrillo met with council members David Cohen and Matt Mahan for poster client Outfront Media. Between 2018 and 2019, Carillo discussed billboards with more than two dozen city officials, according to public statements.

Carrillo discussed the city’s signage plans three times in 2018 with officials on behalf of Clear Channel and its affiliates – another billboard provider.

Miller has been pushing against lobby efforts since September. No Digital Billboards collected 500 signatures for a petition to ban digital billboards in San Jose.

Preservation of historical signage

Ben Leech, executive director of the Preservation Action Council of San Jose, was one of those who signed the petition. He said the idea that digital signs would add excitement to downtown is “propaganda” of the poster industry.

“The idea that San Jose can be the next Times Square is an illusion and wrong,” said Leech. “Improving the historically built environment and contemporary architecture – which is not ad-supported – is really the only way to make a place look authentic and unique. Advertising won’t do that.”

He said historic architecture and signage are essential to maintaining a city’s integrity. The Preservation Action Council has worked to preserve the historical signage, including the dancing pig. Leech said there is a critical difference between preserving landmarks and throwing digital signs near historical locations.

“There is a real categorical distinction between signs that embody the history and culture of a place promoting a local business or telling a story about entrepreneurship and a television screen that changes every seven seconds and has no connection to the place where he is. ” Said Leech.

Handler countered that the city also wants a local artist-supported sign element in the city center to make new electronic signs “entertaining and culturally appealing”.

San Jose-based Jason Hemp – another member of No Digital Billboards – said he was more concerned about the aesthetic impact on areas outside of downtown.

“I really enjoy going to San Francisco. For example, I like the visual aesthetics and beauty of how impressive the Bay Area is with the green hills along the way, in stark contrast to Road 101 on which it is a billboard gives half a mile, “said Hemp. “I couldn’t imagine this growing exponentially.”

An environmental impact report for phase 1 is underway and the city council could vote on the approval of phase 2 as early as spring.

Contact Carly Wipf at [email protected] or follow @CarlyChristineW on Twitter.

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