By Gary Walker
An audit by City Controller Wendy Greuel indicating that Los Angeles had lost funding from a private contractor by not approving permits in time has reactivated a conversation among some Westside neighborhood council leaders that has been dormant for the last 18 months.
The topic of street furniture and the contracts awarded to certain companies by the City Council has been a sore spot for some local transportation advocates as well as those who say its advertisements are akin to visual blight.
The audit by the city controller, who is running to replace Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, states that the city has lost approximately $23 million because city officials have been slow to approve necessary permits. The report additionally highlights a complaint that Councilman Bill Rosendahl has repeated for years: that Los Angeles, and especially his 11th District, is not receiving its fair share in revenue from street furniture advertising and billboards.
Street furniture is a term used to describe objects and pieces of equipment installed on streets and roads for various purposes, such as bus benches and kiosks, public restrooms and waste receptacles.
“I view this as a lost opportunity to do something wonderful for transit riders and instead has allowed one company to make a lot of money,” said Ken Alpern, a transit advocate and a member of the Mar Vista Community Council. “This entire thing has been a debacle for transit users and for the city of Los Angeles.”
Alpern was referring to CBS/Decaux, which has a 20-year contract with the city to install street furniture and to place advertisements within or upon the structures.
Greuel’s audit is not the first time that it has been discovered that the permitting process for street furniture has been less than adequate. In 2009, The Argonaut reported that kiosks, bus benches and other structures throughout Venice did not have coastal permits, which are required on development west of Lincoln Boulevard.
The state Coastal Commission considers structures such as street furniture development.
“We have delegated the city the authority to obtain coastal permits for street furniture, and we are expecting the city to process these permits,” said Charles Posner, a Coastal Commission analyst.
Alpern said he understands that the city makes a great deal of revenue from the shelter advertisements, but takes issue with how the money is allocated. “Most of the city’s street furniture is on the Westside, but the revenue goes to the entire city,” he noted.
Rosendahl, who represents Venice, Mar Vista and Westchester, where a great deal of street furniture has been established, considers this an injustice to his district, as the profits are divided among the 15 council districts.
“It’s unfair that my district has been the one that has been bombarded with more street furniture advertising and more billboards and visual blight than any other district,” he said. “So we get all of the blight and only a small part of the revenue stream.”
Alpern thinks the equation is unbalanced between those who should benefit from street furniture – transit users – and a city contractor’s profit and loss statement. “The main goal of having a street furniture program is not to allow CBS/Decaux to make as much money as possible,” he asserted.
CBS/Decaux representatives could not be reached for comment.
According to its contract, the company is entitled to 3,300 pieces of street furniture, and in turn guarantees approximately $150 million for 1,640 advertisements in 2,250 bus shelters.
In Venice, residents have taken a defiant position on the advertisements that are placed in many of the bus shelters and on structures that often feature movie posters, electronic products or other commercial enterprises.
Gail Rogers, who has lived in Venice for 40 years, considers street furniture visual blight. In 2009, she brought a proposal before the Venice Neighborhood Council that requested “no more street furniture by CBS/Decaux be installed, that any street furniture associated with the outdoor advertising firm be removed and that the current contract with CBS/Decaux be nullified, along with any other contract under the ‘Coordinated Street Furniture Program’ in any location.”
The advisory council approved the motion, but Rogers later learned that the contract cannot be rescinded.
Alpern, who co-chairs the Council District 11 Transportation Advisory Committee, was concerned, as were other committee members in 2011 that the negotiation of a contract for images and advertising posters for another street furniture contractor had not been fully examined by interested parties, such as neighborhood councils and transit riders.
The committee asked the city Planning Department to delay approving the contract until clearer details of the contract and the contractor emerged.
“Whereas there has been considerably more attention paid to date to the needs of the advertisers than to the needs of transit riders with respect to the bus benches and other bus stop amenities for transit riders, the Council District 11 Transportation Advisory Committee strongly urges a 60-day ‘hold’ on awarding the new city of Los Angeles bus bench advertising contract to allow neighborhood council, grassroots and transit rider input,” the committee’s motion read.
The contract included the installation of several bus benches in Mar Vista along Venice Boulevard.
The Argonaut located the name of the company, Miami-based Martin Media Outdoor LLC, in an Aug. 3 city Public Works committee report. The contract was later approved by the City Council.