Signs of the Times

Have advertisers found a way to end-run S.F.'s ban on billboards?

It's been nearly two years since the passage of Proposition G, the anti-billboard measure supported by 77 percent of San Francisco voters, and in that time, the city has remained mostly untouched by the kind of large-scale signs that some had feared would turn picture-postcard views into glorified commercials. But while city officials and neighborhood groups have had their eyes trained on the skyline, watchful for illegal billboards, a sleeker, more subtle form of signage has sprung up in the streets.

Light boxes — silver-sided frames illuminated from within — have long been a fixture in movie theater lobbies, showcasing coming attractions on posters that glow when the rear of the box is switched on. In the past couple of years, however, light boxes have moved from the walls of the multiplex into the streets of America's densest urban areas, where, no longer limited to selling summer blockbusters, the backlit signs have become an increasingly popular way to hawk credit cards, clothes, and cars.

“They're somewhat of a new phenomenon — the next style of billboard,” says Tamar Cooper, a program director with San Francisco Beautiful, a leading proponent and protector of Prop. G. “They slid in gradually at first, but now we're seeing them all over the place.”

Worried that the influx of light boxes constitutes an end run by advertisers around the billboard ban, the San Francisco Planning Department took its case to an administrative law judge last month, arguing that the glowing signs are illegal under Proposition G. During the five-hour hearing, city planners testified against 28 light boxes at 12 different locations in Chinatown, the Financial District, North Beach, the Richmond District, and other neighborhoods. It's an unusual test for the much-discussed and widely supported billboard ban, but city officials hope the judge — who is still deliberating the case — will eventually decide in their favor.

“Our position is that many of these signs are without permits, they can't be up, and they cannot be legalized,” says city planner Ken Chin, who presented the bulk of the evidence at the hearing. “You need a permit for any of these signs in the city.”

Indeed, that requirement dates back even further than Proposition G. In 2001, amid the tech boom that had brought as many as 1,500 billboards to San Francisco's skyline, the Board of Supervisors adopted regulations aimed at ridding the city of the detritus of the dot-com craze. Proposed by then-Supervisor Mark Leno, the legislation required companies to secure permits and to post the permit number, company name, and allowable dimensions on every new billboard. As long as the signs stood illegally, billboard companies and property owners could be fined as much as $2,500 a day.

A year later, Proposition G went even further, prohibiting the future construction of any so-called general advertising billboards — signs that advertise a product or service that is not specific to their location. (Bus shelters, news kiosks, public bathrooms, and Muni and BART stations were exempted from the ban.) Hundreds of cities, including San Jose, Oakland, Denver, Seattle, and Houston, had already passed similar legislation, joining states like Hawaii, Oregon, and Vermont in stands against billboard proliferation. In San Francisco, only the local Republican Party and billboard giant Clear Channel Communications presented any significant opposition to the measure, which also mandated that existing billboards be moved only with the city's consent.

Proposition G does not, however, regulate on-site signs for businesses advertising their own premises, and it's that stipulation that has somewhat clouded the issue of the light boxes. In San Francisco, light boxes are found affixed to the exterior walls of convenience stores and gas stations, or mounted on a column in the middle of a public parking lot, and the signs advertise a wide variety of products: Nextel, the cellular communications giant, is a common occupant, as is American Express. Property owners and attorneys for the light box company argued at the hearing that a product like American Express — although normally defined as “general advertising” — can be used at the gas stations and liquor stores sporting the light boxes, and might therefore be considered on-site promotion. Even Cooper of S.F. Beautiful says: “On-site general advertising is a completely different story, and there's nothing in Proposition G that addresses this.”

San Francisco's light boxes have arrived courtesy of Metro Lights Outdoor Media, a New York-based company that leases space from property owners, then installs, changes, and maintains the signs. Metro Lights has installed thousands of signs, kiosks, electronic bulletins, and wall banners throughout Manhattan, Chicago, Boston, Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., and Miami. But the company's CEO, Barry Rush, declined to comment on the San Francisco situation, citing the judge's ongoing deliberations. “We do business with various jurisdictions throughout the country,” Rush said. “And we always try to be a good corporate citizen.”

City officials expect a decision soon from Administrative Law Judge Peter Kearns, who is weighing a number of issues for each individual sign, including permit information, date of installation, and whether the light box can definitively be classified and banned as off-site general advertising. He also has the power to impose fines of up to $2,500 per violation.

“Everything is pretty much out of our hands,” says Chin of the Planning Department. “It's up to the judge now. A minority of the sites could have received permits, and might have been installed prior to Prop. G. It's a case-by-case basis, and we're in the middle of it right now.”

But Metro Lights isn't necessarily waiting for the judge's ruling; in the weeks since the hearing, the firm has filed several permits with the city to remove some of the offending light boxes, Chin says. S.F. Beautiful, meanwhile, is working on a system of identifying new light boxes in the city and relaying citizen complaints to the Planning Department.

“They make money off this,” Cooper says of advertisers. “And it's absolutely illegal to make money off something illegal in the city.”

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