An environmental review of a proposal that would allow scores of digital billboards to go up throughout San Jose is nearing an end. City officials expect to brief the City Council on the matter sometime in the next month.
The proposal—the second of two phases of updates to the city’s sign ordinance—would allow up to 90 digital billboards on private property and on public property owned by agencies other than the city. Phase 1, approved by the council in September 2018, OK’d the installation of up to 22 signs on 17 city-owned sites.
Proponents of the changes say the billboards could generate desperately needed revenue for the city; opponents worry they’d be an eyesore, kill birds and distract motorists.
John Miller, a member of No Digital Billboards in San Jose and founder of Washington DC-based Scenic America, said all signs—no pun intended—point to the San Jose Planning Department producing an environmental review that’s favorable to the 90-billboard proposal. “Ultimately, the City Council will exercise its own judgment about this issue,” Miller said in a recent interview. “I think the council would be more inclined to pay attention to negative public opposition than to any negative reaction the EIR [environmental impact review] references.”
Councilman Raul Peralez, who represents the greater downtown area, told San Jose Inside that any discussion of a potential approval for Phase 2 is premature at this point.
“Nothing is final yet on digital billboards because we haven’t had a conclusion of the final analysis,” he said. “We’ve approved steps along the way, but haven’t had final approval of the program to allow digital billboards to be erected. That discussion is still to come and any number of factors could change that outcome. A lot of stuff is still up in the air.”
Supporters of the updated sign ordinance—including the San Jose Downtown Association—say digital billboards will add to the urban fabric of downtown, bring in additional revenue, allow the city the flexibility to promote events and take down existing static billboards that were built decades ago. The Phase 2 plan would require companies to take down four static billboards for every new digital one they erect [there are approximately 300 static billboards in the city].
“At the end of the day, whether it’s four, five or 10 static billboards that go down for every one digital billboard put up, you’re going to lose old billboards that are a blight to the community,” Peralez said.
The 4-1 takedown ratio has done little to appease members of the group No Digital Billboards in San Jose.
“The city could end up with new digital billboards while hundreds of existing billboards are still left standing,” Miller said, “the majority of which are still making money for their billboard company owners. Under that scenario the billboard companies get the best of both worlds, new digitals in prime locations and old conventionals still making money. Pretty neat, no?”
Peralez said changes to the sign ordinance were inspired by what transpired in the lead-up to Super Bowl 50 at Levi’s Stadium in February 2016. Signage promoting the Super Bowl on high-rise buildings in San Francisco were ubiquitous; in San Jose, not so much.
“Unfortunately, the city of San Jose ran into a major problem when Oracle wanted to put a big banner up because our sign ordinance [at the time] would not allow it,” he said. “Oracle did it anyway, but that kind of violated the law.”
Peralez added: “That’s when the Mayor [Sam Liccardo] got involved and asked, ‘How do we create a little more relaxation in the sign ordinance to allow some interesting new age signs, especially when we’re one of the host cities to a major event like the Super Bowl.”
The city held a series of public engagement meetings regarding Phase 2 of the project last July, with overwhelming public sentiment in opposition of new digital billboards. Indeed, Councilwoman Pam Foley acknowledged as much to San Jose Inside.
“We’ve received a lot of emails in opposition to electronic billboards and I haven’t received one in support of them,” she said. “I’ve met with a lot of constituents in opposition to billboards, and frankly at this point I am really not someone who is likely to support this coming forward.”
Foley’s issues with new billboards range from drivers being distracted on the freeways, urban blight and the potential harmful environmental impact billboards could have on “birds and natural habitat.”
“I have some serious concerns regardless of what the EIR says,” she said. “[With that being said], it’s not even on the council's radar until the EIR is completed, and I don’t think that is set to be done until March, maybe.”
Miller doesn’t buy that rationale one bit, arguing that the city has designated electronic billboards as its No. 3 priority in a July 2020 memo. He also says that the city has spent hundreds of thousands of tax payer dollars in staff time and consultant fees facilitating the Phase 1 and Phase 2 amendments to the sign ordinance to allow digital billboards.
Moreover, there is no near-term significant revenue stream, Miller said, because “digital billboards that are erected on private property [Phase 2] will not bring in revenue to the city, while billboards on public property [Phase 1] may bring in revenue.”
At minimum, the city will receive 30 to 35 percent in gross advertising sales revenues from the building-mounted and free-standing, freeway-facing signage, while also receiving a percentage of the “time/space” on the sign for city announcements, according to Blage Zelalich, San Jose’s downtown manager in the Office of Economic Development.
Miller countered that the city has already wasted taxpayer dollars for an ordinance that should’ve never been updated in the first place. “We still don’t know how much money the city has spent on studying the entire digital billboard proposal while keeping it under wraps from prying public eyes for years,” he said. “However, we do know that one small component, referred to as ‘wayfinding signs,’ which are digital directional and advertising signs targeting pedestrians in the public right of way, has had up to $2 million allocated to its review, about $800,000 of which has so far been spent.”
The timing for the final vote on the sign ordinance depends on when the draft EIR is released. Once that’s available, residents will have up to 45 days to weigh in before the city produces the final version. Click here for more information on the Phase 2 amendments and instructions about how to submit feedback to the public record.
This article has been updated.