A Los Angeles city commission is planning to advise the City Council against implementing a plan by a private foundation to install banners and outdoor signs in public parks in exchange for donations, including at Venice Beach.

The city’s Planning Commission, in an Oct. 5 report obtained by The Argonaut, is recommending that city leaders not act on an earlier proposal to erect comprehensive sign programs in parks and other recreational areas.

“A motion introduced on May 3 proposed that the City Council instruct the Planning Department, with the assistance of the city attorney, to prepare an ordinance to permit banners and signs, to include off-site signs at city-owned facilities and city parks,” deputy planning director Alan Bell wrote in the report. “However, this motion was never adopted by the City Council and was referred to the planning staff.”

Dennis Hathaway, the executive director of the Coalition to Ban Billboard Blight, applauded the planning commission’s recommendation.

“It’s a temporary victory that this mechanism has been removed,” said Hathaway, a Venice resident who has been at the forefront of a protracted battle to reduce the number of signs throughout Los Angeles and especially on the Westside.

The municipal sign ordinance, passed in 2008, currently prohibits new signs, both static and electronic.

Last month at a meeting sponsored by the Westside Regional Alliance of Councils, a coalition representing the Westside’s 13 neighborhood councils, Hathaway asked Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa if he would veto an ordinance that would permit banners to be installed in locations like Venice Beach or Mar Vista Park.

“If this ordinance reaches your desk, will you not sign it if it does not substantially conform with what your appointees on the city’s Planning Commission want?” the anti-blight advocate asked.

Villaraigosa demurred, in part because he said he was unaware of the proposal by the parks foundation.

“I can’t say to you right now if I agree with them or disagree with them. I haven’t seen the details of what they have passed,” the mayor said. “I don’t have enough specifics to weigh in on it.”

Hathaway was surprised by Villaraigosa’s response to his question.

“I found his ignorance disturbing and quite frankly, appalling,” he asserted. “The proliferation of signs is a very important matter to many people in the city, especially on the Westside.”

Los Angeles Parks Foundation Executive Director Judith Keiffer did not respond to inquires regarding the commission’s recommendation on signs in parks.

The Venice Neighborhood Council sent a community impact statement to City Councilman Bill Rosendahl’s office after a unanimous vote at its Sept. 20 meeting opposing any revisions to the current sign ordinance that would permit outdoors signs and banners.

“(The change to the sign ordinance) would allow a proliferation of commercial advertising on both private and public property without a significant reduction in existing billboard and signage blight and would allow new electronic signage without addressing energy use, light pollution, traffic safety and other issues that could negatively affect Venice and other communities throughout the city,” the Venice council’s resolution stated.

At the same meeting, the local board passed another resolution supporting a motion that was sent to City Attorney Carmen Trutanich prohibiting alcohol advertising on city-owned property.

The Mar Vista Community Council’s Planning and Land Use Committee brought a similar motion before the full board Oct. 11 opposing any changes to the current sign ordinance that would permit commercial advertising in parks or on private property. The motion passed unanimously.

Rosendahl, who represents Venice, did not appear to write off the prospect of some signage in city parks at some point.

“We need to explore the idea of partnerships with the private sector,” the councilman told The Argonaut. “It depends on how tasteful they are and how they’re arranged.

“For example, if you donate money and get a plaque on a bench, that’s a good idea. So it depends on if it enhances or doesn’t enhance the park, and how tasteful they are.”

Rosendahl said the city’s and nation’s fiscal difficulties force lawmakers to be open to multiple possibilities that could help them generate revenue or offset municipal costs.

“We’re living in a very tough financial situation in America right now, and we have to be realistic,” he said. “As long as it isn’t visual blight, as long as it isn’t toxic signage that blinds people, these things have to be all on the table.

“To call for a general ban is not right,” Rosendahl stressed.

Mar Vista Community Council First Vice President Sharon Commins believes there could be a way to have certain entities sponsor parks without opening the door to commercial advertising.

“I think its valuable to keep appropriate donor identification, such as the Windward School (in Mar Vista) ‘adopt a park’ recognition signage at the recreation center, while holding off on wholesale ads in parks,” she said. “Maybe there should still be some places kids can go play without being subjected to advertising signage.”

Rosendahl said decisions should be made on a case-by-case basis.

“Each park is different, each potential partnership is different, but a complete ban is in nobody’s interest. When it comes to a park, it depends how it’s done,” he reiterated. “Does it cause energy that is negative? Or is it appreciated by people?”

Hathaway disagrees with Rosendahl’s stance on potential partnerships with the Los Angeles Parks Foundation.

“I understand and respect Councilman Rosendahl’s concerns about the need for revenue, but I think that using public space for advertising is not something that a city should be contemplating,” the anti-blight advocate said.

The councilman pointed to his history of being perhaps the most outspoken member of the City Council against the proliferation of billboards and outdoors signs as evidence that he is not a legislator who typically supports outdoor signage. He also noted his work with Hathaway three years ago to catalogue all of the illegal billboards in Mar Vista, Venice and West Los Angeles.

The Argonaut asked two contenders for the mayor’s seat in 2013 their opinions on outdoor signs in public parks:

City Councilwoman Jan Perry was one of the architects of the initial plan to allow private companies to erect banners in parks and recreational facilities.

Austin Beutner, a former deputy mayor in Villaraigosa’s administration and a Westside resident, has lately been making the rounds at different community forums since announcing his candidacy. Neither candidate responded to inquires on potential changes to the sign ordinance at press time.

There are also 14 pending sign districts that will come before the land use and planning committee, including one that was initiated by a property owner near Los Angeles International Airport.

According to planning documents, these districts could be affected by changes to the sign ordinance unless they are “grandfathered,” meaning they would be allowed to continue through the review process under the existing sign law.

Bell said there was still an opportunity to revisit any revisions to the current ordinance if city leaders wish to in the future.

“If the City Council determines that that this issue warrants further study and votes to refer this motion to the planning staff, then the staff will undertake a careful analysis of the potential benefits and impacts of allowing off-site signs in public parks as part of a funded sign unit,” Bell wrote.

Rosendahl suggested holding meetings with local park advisory boards and neighborhood councils as well as interested community groups to reach compromises or solutions to the controversial topic.

“I don’t think a blanket law denying any kind of public/private partnership is smart for a city that is trying to make ends meet,” he asserted. “We want to keep our parks open and vibrant.”

Hathaway drew an analogy between some of the reasons behind the “Occupy Wall Street” protests in New York and other cities to billboards and other outdoor advertising.

“Many of the issues that created the financial crisis were largely due to a culture of consumerism by trying to convince people who could not afford houses to buy them,” he said. “That is similar to the proliferation of signs and messages telling us that our lives are not complete if we do not buy (a company’s) product or buy the latest electronic gadget.

“For the city to be partners in marketing these products in parks is approving the idea of consumerism,” Hathaway concluded.

The council’s planning and land use committee will hear the commission’s recommendations Wednesday, Oct. 18.

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