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The battle heats up over billboards in Los Angeles city parks

Welcome to the battle over billboards in Los Angeles city parks.

Could our city parks really be filled with dazzling billboards and distracting advertisements crowding park benches, picnic tables, and fence space? A law exists against using public space for signage. However, citing cutbacks, the Parks and Recreation Commission is looking into ways for corporations to “donate” money in exchange for advertising space in the city parks. In fact, some have accused the city of actually selling public space to advertisers.

Last year, the city almost allowed super graphics from Warner Brothers 3-D movie “Yogi Bear” to populate “fences, shelters, picnic tables, trash cans, light standards, walkways, and other structures in Holmby Park, Pan Pacific Rec Center, and Lake Balboa Park.” After a public outcry, the plan was delayed and ultimately canned after the movie's premiere date passed.

The opposition to such ads has quickly grown. KCET launched an in-depth investigation of billboards in public spaces. (See their report here.) Meanwhile, the nonprofit Friends of Griffith Park has stepped up to the plate as the voice of public concern.

Recently, we spoke with Bernadette Soter, a founding board member of Friends of Griffith Park and current vice president of outreach for the organization. She answered the questions below.

There was a hearing on August 9th where the Planning and Land Use Management Committee (PLUM) of the L.A. City Council heard plans for a proposed new sign ordinance containing a provision for “comprehensive sign programs.” What happened at this hearing?

"LA City Council is moving ahead with revisions to the existing sign ordinance, but whether or not those revisions will permit commercial signing in parks and city-owned spaces remains to be seen. The proposals have been advanced outside of public view. The public is now learning of them and is beginning to speak out."

Why exactly is Friends of Griffith Park opposed to the idea? Is it an aesthetic reason?

"If successful, this radical re-writing of our sign laws will not only alter the purpose of our parks, it will expose the people who use them — especially kids — to commercial exploitation. The children who play in our parks should not be offered up as marketing targets. Parks are retreats from our urban milieu and the relentless drumbeat of commerce. They are also a core city service and do not exist to generate revenue. Not to mention, there is language general enough to allow digital signage."

Putting advertisements in Griffith Park violates the city’s billboard ordinance, but advertisers are nonetheless looking for ways around the issue by providing “donations” to the park.  Has anyone specified how these donations would be used?

"It is a shame to see the vocabulary of philanthropy employed to mask self-interest and for-profit intent. What are being called “donations,” are really transactions. Real donations don’t require payback. Throughout Los Angeles, corporate benefactors are duly thanked and acknowledged on institutional donor walls bearing no logos or references to the companies’ products or services. You can just visit the Los Angeles Public Library, UCLA, the Music Center and all of our major museums to see how this works."

How these so-called “donations” would be used is as murky as the ordinance revision process with which the public is grappling. However, the money won’t buy much. The Rec and Parks Commission president has admitted that the potential upside from selling advertising in the parks 'is not a windfall.'"

Parks are being shut down all over the state due to economic issues. Do you think the dire condition of the California state budget will impact this?

"The dire condition of the California state budget has not prevented the L.A. City Council from investing public funds into private ventures — such as taking on debt to enable the AEG stadium."

What do you think the future will be for signs in LA city parks?

"To offset the power of the sign lobby, the public must get involved now and inform elected officials of their opposition to commercializing our parks and public spaces."

At the conclusion of August 9th meeting, Chair Ed Reyes noted that the signage item will be brought back to the PLUM committee on October 18th. 

Image: frikitiki/Flickr