Once upon a time, the billboard industry realized that digital billboards were much more profitable than conventional billboards. Given that realization, let’s look at how the billboard lobby may have begun to sneak digital billboards into San Jose, even though the city had enacted a ban on new billboards in 1985.
First, lobbyists planted the notion that permitting restaurant, retail and office signs to incorporate digital technology would economically and aesthetically revitalize the city, especially downtown. Articles echoing that theme appeared with increasing frequency in the Silicon Valley Business Journal and Mercury News.
Second, the billboard lobby worked steadily to liberalize the sign ordinance, to which the City Council—incrementally and without fanfare—made the following changes:
- Allow electronic programming signs downtown (adopted Sept. 1, 2009)
- Allow attached or freestanding digital signs citywide for large assembly uses (June 19, 2012)
- Allow the increase of the maximum allowable square footage of programmable electronic components of freeway signs (Oct. 16, 2012)
Third, the billboard lobby promised the city a revenue stream if permitted to erect digital advertising signs (billboards) on public property. Their purpose would be for general advertising (think national brands and services) and they would be in addition to any existing digital signs dedicated to local event or public service announcements.
In the strategic assault on the sign ordinance, this scheme was referred to as “Phase 1” which was adopted by the City Council in 2018. As a result, as many as 22 large digital billboards may soon be added on or near public buildings and sites in San Jose.
Finally, “Phase 2,” is the piece de resistance—what lobbyists wanted all along—as many as 90 large freestanding digital billboards on private property throughout San Jose.
These signs advertising nationally available products and services would produce plenty of profit for the billboard companies and there would be no need to pay any revenue to the city. Or, as Mayor Sam Liccardo remarked in a council meeting about digital billboards on private property: “there's really zero benefit … zero city revenue.”
This decade-long quest by the billboard lobby and its friends on the City Council to make Phase 2 a reality will face a final up or down vote in the coming months. Imagine our freeways and gateways to downtown lined with enormous electronic signs. Think how easily the positive sense of place we’ve worked so hard to create can be destroyed.
The good news is more than 150 people at four public online meetings fervently spoke out against digital billboard advertising on public and private property.
So loud and clear was their concern that it appears the City Council is now actually listening to a growing consensus in opposition.
Here’s what the council needs to hear from residents and visitors alike: “Rescind Phase 1, put an end to Phase 2 and reinstate the 1985 ban on new billboards in San Jose.”
John Miller is a member of No Digital Billboards in San Jose, a founder of Washington DC-based Scenic America and the author of Egotopia: Narcissism and the New American Landscape. Opinions are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of San Jose Inside. Send op-ed pitches to [email protected].