He has scaled Mt. Shasta, one of the state’s highest mountains, so reaching for new heights is not a foreign concept to Dennis Hathaway.
But the Venice resident never fathomed that one of his biggest challenges would lie ahead of him, a mountain of red tape, lobbyists and an industry that generates millions of dollars for Los Angeles on an annual basis.
Hathaway, the president of the Coalition to Ban Billboard Blight, is arguably Los Angeles’ most recognizable advocate for confronting what many feel is the scourge of a community’s visual landscape — outdoor advertising, commonly known to many as billboards.
His entry into the billboard saga began when he and his wife Laura Silagi became involved with the Lincoln Center development project several years ago and continued during his time spent on the Lincoln Boulevard Development Overlay Committee. Hathaway says that for the first time, the sheer number of billboards on one of Venice’s most heavily traveled thoroughfares caught his attention.
“It really raised my level of awareness,” Hathaway, 66, said in a recent interview. “You tend to block out the unsightly landscape, but I couldn’t any longer.”
He later joined the Venice Neighborhood Council land use and planning committee, where he worked on a number of policy matters related to development.
Perhaps the defining moment came when Hathaway began to notice a number of mini-billboards on the sides of bus kiosks and benches known as street furniture near his home on Palms Boulevard.
“I think that was the real impetus for me getting involved in the billboard issue,” Hathaway recalled. “The explosion of street furniture in Venice really caught my attention.”
He began cataloguing all of the outdoor advertising around his neighborhood, a project that he would later tackle on a much larger scale. To his surprise, Hathaway, a former building contractor and construction manager, learned something that he would never have imagined.
“When I went to the Department of Building and Safety, I learned that the city had no idea how many of these billboards were registered and how many were illegal,” he said. “The record keeping was very poor.”
In 2006, he founded the Coalition to Ban Billboard Blight and has since been leading the battle against the proliferation of outdoor advertising citywide.
Los Angeles is in the midst of rewriting a sign ordinance that will reconfigure the interpretation of signs, advertising and art. It will also seek to set definite standards for billboards, with stricter regulations for digital signs and the now ubiquitous supergraphics.
One of the few times that the battle against billboard companies has discouraged Hathaway occurred after outdoor sign company Metro Lights LLC won a lawsuit against the city. It charged that city officials’ street furniture program was unconstitutional. Hathaway’s organization filed a motion to set aside the court ruling but was unsuccessful.
“I went on vacation to Mt. Shasta and I considered turning the billboard fight over to someone else,” he remembered.
Upon his return, he was bolstered by more people signing up to join the fight against billboard blight, and that’s when Hathaway became reenergized.
An appellate court overturned the lower court decision in the Metro Lights case earlier this year.
But the outdoor advertising industry has redoubled its efforts. Other sign companies have sued the city government, and there is currently a lawsuit pending that seeks to prevent the city from implementing its ban on all digital and traditional signs.
Venice Neighborhood Council vice president Linda Lucks thinks highly of Hathaway, citing how he has taken a topic that started locally and is now receiving attention from city and state officials.
“He has done a yeoman’s job on drawing awareness to the preponderance of billboards not only in Venice, but throughout the city,” Lucks told The Argonaut. “He created a brilliant campaign that has drawn support from all over the city.”
Muralists also feel that billboards deprive the public of the enjoyment of a scenic landscape, especially in Venice. They and other artists share Hathaway’s contention that outdoor signs do nothing to enhance the visual corridors and many consider them to be blight.
“Do we want every square inch of eye space in this city to be about consumer goods, or do we want to create a city that is livable and beautiful and has public space?” asked muralist Judy Baca, founder of the Venice-based Social and Public Art Resource Center (SPARC). “That is what we are deciding right now.”
Hathaway credits Councilman Bill Rosendahl with leading the fight from the legislative side against the onslaught of billboards.
“We wouldn’t have gotten this far without him,” the coalition president said. “He has been very dedicated and very responsive.”
Rosendahl held a press conference last October when Hathaway organized several dozen volunteers from Mar Vista and Venice to catalogue the number of outdoor signs in the 11th District, which includes Westchester, Venice, Mar Vista and Del Rey.
The volunteer group counted 563 billboards, 34 which had no indication of which company owned them. Clear Channel had the most with 143.
The citizen effort led the Building and Safety department to pledge to initiate its own inventory of which billboards are legal and which companies should be fined for not having the necessary permits.
“Dennis represents the perfect example of what grassroots (advocacy) is all about,” said Lucks.
Hathaway is a member of Big City Mountaineers, a nonprofit recreational mentoring program for at-risk teens. The group raises funds for youths to enjoy outdoor activities.
“Mountain climbing is a good way to clear the mind and get away from the everyday frustration of dealing with a very powerful force,” he said.
He gives credit to his fellow Venice residents and his coalition members who have stood with him in the fight against billboard blight.
“The city and its landscapes belong to all of us,” Hathaway said. “The billboard issue may not be as important as gang violence or poverty, but it’s a quality of life issue.”