With a 3-2 vote on Monday night, West Hollywood’s City Council ordered that a billboard and digital art project proposed for Sunset Boulevard get more public input and come back in a smaller version of the project.
The Sunset Spectacular, also known as the Sunset Belltower, is a 72-foot high, 25-foot wide, three-sided project proposed for the city-owned parking at 8775 Sunset Blvd. (the old Tower Records overflow parking lot). Two of the three sides will have video screens that display digital advertising 80% of the time and digital public art the other 20%. It is illustrated in the video above by Tom Wiscombe Architects.
Conceived by Orange Barrel Media in conjunction with Tom Wiscombe, after winning a city-sponsored completion, the project will be built in three vertical panels of perforated, reinforced aluminum connected via a skeletal frame. The area inside that skeletal frame will also be used for visual and audio art projects. Orange Barrel will cover the $9.5 million price of the project.
Councilmember John Heilman liked the overall project, but felt it should be scaled down, that it was too massive, and shouldn’t tower over the area.
“If we’re going to do this, it should be something that is more suitable and more appropriate for the location as opposed to the size of what we have been presented,” Heilman said.
Heilman noted the original idea was to create a pilot project to test creative digital signage on the Sunset Strip, but has morphed into something much grander that now includes a 3,700 square-foot public plaza as well as the “quasi art gallery” inside the sign, as he phrased it.
However, Councilmember John D’Amico pushed to have the project approved as presented, calling it a “spectacularly bad idea” to reduce the size.
“The height of this billboard and the purpose of this billboard is to have as much billboardness as possible,” said D’Amico.
Getting More Input
Councilmembers Lauren Meister and Lindsey Horvath both felt the project had not gotten enough public input, believing it should be vetted by city’s Planning Commission and Arts and Cultural Affairs Commission (ACAC) before the Council takes a final vote on it.
However, D’Amico argued that only the City Council has purview over whether to build it, noting ACAC will have a say in the public art displayed on the sign.
Meanwhile, Horvath contended that the city was trying to do something that has never been done before, so taking a little longer and being sure the community’s concerns were addressed was important. She felt getting input from ACAC was essential.
“This is consistently billed as a piece of art with an art component in addition to being an advertising piece,” said Horvath. “So, why we would have a commission that is specifically dedicated to art not comment on this is beyond me.”
Downplaying Negative Reaction
Of the 19 members of the public commenting on the plan, only two spoke against it. Elyse Eisenberg, head of the West Hollywood Heights Neighborhood Association, was adamantly opposed.
“It’s a billboard in a parking lot,” said Eisenberg. “It’s an abomination. We don’t want it in the neighborhood.”
Eisenberg gave a blistering rebuke of city staffers, noting the staff report glossed over neighborhood opposition to the project at public meetings. She also criticized the staff report for downplaying the three dozen letters in the Draft Environmental Impact Report from residents and surrounding businesses opposing the project.
Heilman was also unhappy that city staff was dismissive of the negative comments.
“I really don’t feel you are listening to our [the City Council’s] comments,” Heilman told city staffers. “I’m concerned that you’re going to treat our comments the same way you treated the comments of the public in response to the mitigated negative declaration. I’ve said previously I had concerns about the plaza, concerns about the height and I don’t feel like any of those have been addressed.”
D’Amico urged approval, noting that the mere plans for the project had earned Orange Barrel Media a 2017 Next LA Award from the Los Angeles Chapter of the American Institute of Architects. He also noted that the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) will be curating the public art component of the project, effectively making the parking lot a second location for MOCA in the city (the first is at the Pacific Design Center). He called getting a second location “no small feat.”
D’Amico also said decisions by previous City Councils had hampered creativity in Sunset Strip billboards (specifically citing the removal of the Marlboro Man billboard) and hoped this project would reinvigorate some of that creativity that had been lost over the years.
Mayor John Duran, who joined D’Amico in voting not to reduce the size, noted the project will generate a minimum of $11 million for the city over the ten-year-contract, and will have the potential to generate up to $20 million. Duran said that money could help with social services for the city’s aging population.
Meanwhile, Heilman feared that once built, the project could end up getting substantial negative reactions. He compared it the public outcry in the mid 1990s regarding the large Latino art sculpture installed in the median of Santa Monica Boulevard at Doheny Drive. Created by renowned Mexican artist Jazzamoart and donated to the city by Cuervo tequila, the 30-foot-tall, brightly painted, abstract rendition of birds playing saxophones was severely criticized as being “ugly” and removed after less than three years.
Of the 17 people speaking in favor of the project during the public comment period, most praised the uniqueness and creativeness of it. Resident Tom Taylor said it will attract worldwide attention, while resident Ronald Dicenzo said it will enhance Sunset Boulevard and help make the Strip “sparkle.”
Resident Amanda Smash Hyde said it was “beautiful” alone, but the revenue it will generate for the city was a special bonus. Resident David Nash said, “as the Creative City, we deserve more fabulousness.”
Sarah Stiffler, MOCA chief communications officer, said the project was an opportunity to “get art out of the gallery” and allow for use of technology normally not seen in art.
The meeting also featured several comments that raised eyebrows and will likely leave people talking.
During her public comment, Eisenberg criticized the city for trying to get as much money as possible out of Sunset Strip billboards while continually not addressing neighborhood concerns such as traffic congestion and the shortage of parking.
“When is something going to be given back to our neighborhood? You rape the Sunset Strip. You rape our neighborhood,” Eisenberg said. “You give nothing back to this neighborhood. Nothing. You use the Sunset Strip as a money bank. You give nothing back to us. Ever.”
Horvath criticized Eisenberg’s use of the word “rape” and urged civility in public discussion.
“I understand that people can have very strong feelings about what’s happening. But I am more than willing to tell you about what it means to be a survivor of rape. What this city is doing is not raping her residents,” said Horvath. “I just want to say, let us have a civil discourse without using language that isn’t appropriate for the conversation that we’re having.”
Meanwhile, D’Amico said he had been contacted several times by artist Martin Gantman, a member of the city’s Arts and Cultural Affairs Commission. Gantman, who is the husband of former City Councilmember Abbe Land, was concerned that ACAC had not had the chance to weigh in on the project. He had earlier written an op-ed for WEHOville expressing his support for a design by the firm of famous architect Zaha Hadid.
“This is not the purview of the arts commission. This is the purview of the City Council,” said D’Amico. “I think Mr. Gantman shares a bed with somebody who might be able to turn him into a city councilmember if he wanted to be making decisions like this.”