The Sunset Strip could get more billboards, including more digital billboards, as West Hollywood’s Planning Commission approved the creation of a new Sunset Strip Billboard District in a 4-1 vote on Thursday night.
The proposal, which must get final approval from the City Council, would allow for improvements to existing billboards and potentially add another 18 billboards over the next 15 years.
Under the proposal, the number of billboards on the Strip could increase by 20% from the current 89 billboards to a total of 111 billboards. Four of the current 89 billboards are digital, but the proposal could see another 16 digital billboards added for a total of 20 digital signs by the year 2032, if not sooner.
A report estimates that the current value of all the Sunset Strip billboards is $44.2 million per year. Since the city wants a cut of that billboard money, the proposal would allow for the new billboards and the improvements to existing billboards provided the billboard owners enter into a development agreement that pays the city a hefty sum. Although that sum would vary depending on the size and type of billboard, some recent development agreements have seen billboard owners paying the city between $10,000 and $14,000 every four weeks.
The proposal calls for the creation of three separate billboard regions along the Sunset Strip – a West region (from the city limits with Beverly Hills, near Doheny Drive, to the Sunset Plaza area), a Central region (the area surrounding the Sunset Plaza shopping area), and an East region (from Sunset Plaza to the city limits with Los Angeles, near Havenhurst Drive). The proposal allows for nine new billboards in the West region and nine new billboards in the East region, but none in the Central region, where only improvements to existing billboards would be allowed so as to protect the views of the Los Angeles basin.
Existing billboards could be upgraded as part of a façade remodel and reoriented to allow better visibility angles. They could also change the lighting from flood lighting at the bottom or top of the billboard to backlighting which still allows the signs to be read at night, but has less “light trespass” into the residential areas. These upgraded billboards could also potentially go up an additional 14 feet in height since tree growth and newer buildings have come to block views of some of the billboards over the years.
Digital billboards consumed a major portion of the Commission’s two-and-a-half hour discussion. Digital billboards would be limited to a total of 1,000 square feet. The hope is that many of the existing traditional billboards will upgrade to digital until the maximum of 20 digitals is reached. If not, 17 of the 18 new billboards allotted could be digital ones. To keep the digital billboards special, a limited number of digital billboards would be allowed in each region and would be spaced well apart. None of the existing “tall walls” (ads covering the sides of buildings) would be allowed to go digital.
Of particular concern was the light which the digital billboards emit. Henning Nopper, the general manager of the Andaz Hotel (formerly known as the Continental Hyatt House), which sits directly across from one of the existing digital billboards, reported his guests routinely complain about the flicker of that billboard. “Guests don’t return because of the light and flicker disturbing their sleep,” Nopper said.
Under the proposal, the new digital billboards would be brighter during the day, but reduce the lights at night. If any of the four existing digital billboards, which do not currently have to turn down the brightness after dark, opt to upgrade, they would be required to conform with the new lighting requirements.
Moving animation on digital billboards would be banned between 2 a.m. and sunrise so as not to intrude on people in the early morning hours. Commissioner David Aghaei suggested lowering the light output by an additional 20% between 10 p.m. and 2 a.m. to further reduce the impact of the digital animation.
The plan calls for the digital billboards to change advertisements every 16 seconds. The commissioners debated whether that time should be cut to eight seconds since eight seconds is the standard amount of time that billboard companies sell ads on a digital billboard. However, city staff cited reports saying that the abrupt changeover between two digital ads is what the human eye has the most problem adjusting too, so cutting down that changeover time to 16 seconds would be less intrusive.
The proposal also calls for public art to be incorporated into the billboards. One idea is to have a “Sunset Moment” where all of the digital billboards on the Strip are programmed to display the public art component at the same time. The “Sunset Moment” could be publicized and made into an event for residents and tourists to turn out to see.
The commissioners were excited about the public art aspect. However, Commissioner Donald DeLuccio wanted assurances that the public art would be part of the digital billboard programming throughout the day, not just during the dead of night.
Brand new billboards could not be freestanding or on top of a building. They would have to incorporated into the design of new buildings and limited to a total of 1,500 square feet. To maximize land use and prevent erecting a building just as hanger for a billboard, the new buildings would have to be at least 75% of the allowable density on the north side of the street and 90% of the allowable density on the south side of the street.
Commissioner Lynn Hoopingarner, however, feared the result might be sub-par architecture designed around the billboard. Commissioner Rogerio Carvalheiro echoed that sentiment, saying the billboard would have to be integrated properly into the building’s design, not just slapped on the side of a building.
City staff members reported there are currently 14 pending billboard applications. All of those applications would be eligible to incorporate aspects of this proposal, if it is approved by the City Council. City staffers were not entirely clear how they would handle it if the number of applications for new or upgraded billboards exceeds the proposal’s allotted number.
During a public comment period, resident Elyse Eisenberg spoke against the proposal, saying more billboards are not needed, especially not more digital billboards. “The only people who really want more billboards are people who will profit from it,” Eisenberg said.
Another aspect of the proposal would serve as an incentive for designating historic properties. The city’s recent historic commercial building survey found 109 commercial buildings along the Strip could be designated as historic cultural resources. None have been designated so far, but if the buildings’ owners agree to the historic designation, they could upgrade their billboards.
The commission suggested that historic buildings which do not currently have billboards, but did in the past, should be eligible to restore the billboard to the building if they agree to the historic designation. However, the commission recommended that the restored billboards should look similar to what a billboard from the building’s era looked like.
For example, a building erected in the 1920s should have a billboard that looks like it is from the 1920s (albeit one that has modern backlighting). A building erected in the 1920s, but which added a billboard in the 1950s (that was later removed) would not be eligible since that billboard was not part of the building’s original design. City staffers would have to research which of the historic buildings originally had billboards. The city’s Historic Preservation Commission would also have to weigh in on the matter.
Commissioner Lynn Hoopingarner cast the sole vote against the Billboard District, feeling the proposal needed more work, including greater detail about exactly how it would be implemented. She cited concerns about how the city will determine which billboards should be upgraded if multiple upgrade applications come in, where the money from the development agreements would be allocated and analysis of the math behind the proposal, among other issues.
“I spend every day of my life at work cleaning up other people’s messes where they put policy in front of process and it doesn’t work,” said Hoopingarner, who works as a business management consultant. “If you don’t at least conceptualize how you’re going to implement something effectively, the policy can make it impossible to do so.”
During the public comment period, Layne Lawson of the Clear Channel Outdoor billboard company also called for more work on the proposal. He noted that he works in the industry and couldn’t understand some aspects that were being proposed.
Commissioners John Altschul and Sue Buckner had to recuse themselves from the deliberation because they both live within 500 feet of the Sunset Strip.
1123 N. Formosa Ave.
The commission also voted 6-1 to approve a three-story, five-unit condominium building with subterranean parking at 1123 N. Formosa Ave., just north of Santa Monica Boulevard. Designed by the Los Angeles-based Open Architects, the contemporary building would replace a single-family home.
Joyce Caffey and Stephen Christensen, who live at 1127 N. Formosa, next door to the building, begged the commission not to approve it. They cited the amount of construction happening all around them (10 projects in a two-block radius, they said), which they said causes an inordinate amount of construction dust and prevents them from even using their front porch.
Commissioner John Altschul told them the project conforms with the zoning code and meets the city’s goal of adding to the housing stock. Commissioner David Aghaei agreed, saying the design was acceptable and the city’s General Plan, which guides development throughout the city, calls for denser housing in the area.
Commissioner Rogerio Carvalheiro understood that it met the zoning requirements, but criticized the contemporary, boxy design which does not match the residential area.
“This building does little to elevate the aesthetic of the neighborhood,” said Carvalheiro. “Though I understand that it meets the massing requirements of the city, it isn’t much more that a shifted box scheme with tacked on eyebrow awnings and balconies . . . I’d like to see our projects do more for the neighborhood and more for the inhabitants and more for the city.”
Commissioner Lynn Hoopingarner, who voted against the project, concurred with Carvalheiro’s criticism of the contemporary design.
“I agree that there is a way to incorporate these designs in our communities to more effectively be a part of the community,” said Hoopingarner. “The first of which is maybe taking a step back from the stacked box style and look toward the Spanish style, look toward the Craftsman style. You could have made a building of a larger size have a proportion and a scale that looks like the rest of the neighborhood and therefore feels like a part of the community, not this thing that’s been dropped into the community.”