Should  a ‘Vibrant Downtown’ San Jose Include Gawdy Digital Billboards?

Elected and appointed officials in San Jose are determined to make 22 digital billboards a reality despite almost universal public opposition.

So why should you love digital billboards downtown on public buildings and at 8 freeway-facing locations where they are currently approved and imminent? The City Council and its minions in the bureaucracy offer one persistent, peculiar and perverse reason — digital billboards will magically transform downtown San Jose from a retail and entertainment ghost town into the local equivalent of New York’s popular and well-visited Times Square. To be clear, the formula is as straightforward as it is dubious: Digital billboards equal “vibrancy” equal an economic miracle downtown.

Understanding this economic miracle requires that we quote from the hymnbook of the Church of Urban Vibrancy:

“Today, we have economic development goals of creating a more vibrant downtown,” then-Councilmember Sam Liccardo was quoted in 2010.

Fast forward to the recent present: “Expanding the types of allowable signs on city-owned sites may enhance commercial vibrancy in…the Downtown Sign Zone.” Rosalynn Hughey, former Director of the Planning Department.

“Expanding the types of allowable signs on city-owned sites may enhance commercial vibrancy and create a more interesting visual environment…downtown.” Kim Walesh, former Deputy City Manager.

Currently, Councilmember and mayoral candidate Raul Peralez reiterated to San Jose Inside the supposed connection between billboards and downtown vibrancy by favoring a relaxation of the sign code to “allow some interesting new age signs.“

Not only are billboards conducive to downtown vibrancy (being new age and all) they are found by the public to be “attractive and exciting” according to Chuck Reed, former Mayor, now billboard lobbyist extraordinaire. Lately, unidentified members of the Planning Department were quoted explaining that “billboards and signs are used in big cities to promote vibrancy and a sense of identity…not[ing] the recent revival of billboards in Detroit and Cleveland as examples.”

Why the San Jose metropolitan area, which enjoys the nation’s second-highest per capita gross domestic product, should take lessons from Detroit ranked at 64th and Cleveland at 42nd, reveals either stunning ignorance, chutzpah or both. San Jose obtained its enviable per capital ranking without the “benefit” of new billboards since they were banned city-wide in 1985.

But the belief in a causal connection between digital billboards and urban vibrancy is alive and well not only in city government but also the San Jose Downtown Association which primarily represents commercial property owners and tenants. Scott Knies, the Association’s executive director made clear “The digital experience is coming. It is going to be adding color and excitement and frankly we think it is overdue.” Nate LeBlanc, the organization’s Business Development Manager added “Many of our members are pushing for an urbanity, a vitality and this signage is a step in the right direction.”

When specifically asked if the Downtown Association actually believes that billboards advertising the likes of fast food and cell phones will cause people to spend more time and money downtown, Mr. LeBlanc responded that the Association “has never really exactly thought of it like that.” Really? How else are we to understand that organization’s advocacy of digital billboards?

But what exactly is this urban vibrancy, about which billboard proponents make so many claims? While admitting it is a term whose meaning is loosely defined, academicians explain it as “the connection between people in urban places” which they admit they know little about.

One thing we do know is that billboard proponents have not produced even one study which demonstrates digital billboards promote vibrancy and consequently boost the local economy. Not the Office of Economic Development. Not the Planning Department. Not any member of the City Council. Not anybody.

Surprised? Don’t be. Architect Rachel Thurston contends “much of urban development tends not to be based on empirical findings, but more on anecdotal assumptions.” Simply put, “Urban planners desperately need data,” asserts analyst Evgeny Klochikhin.

Until they get that data to support otherwise off-the-wall theories, we must assume billboard-induced urban vibrancy is an urban myth. A myth told by Chuck Reed and other billboard lobbyists to gullible elected and appointed officials who then repeat it verbatim and ad nauseam.

Will city billboard policy be determined by community values or by the values of the billboard industry parroted by elected, appointed officials and downtown business interests? They repeatedly spew billboard industry talking points in the place of empirically verifiable evidence and without widespread public buy-in.

Fortunately our “leaders” can easily remind themselves just what constitutes public sentiment on this issue. Some 90% of over 2000 respondents to a recent Planning Department survey oppose digital billboards along San Jose freeways and 80% object to them on downtown buildings.

If one candidate running for mayor takes a stand opposing digital billboards (for no other reason than they are antithetical to the city’s pledge to prevent traffic fatalities and its promise to save energy and reduce greenhouse gases) we’re confident the residents of San Jose will enthusiastically support such a leader. Mayoral candidates, we’re talking to you.

Jason Hemp, Les Levitt and John Miller are founders of No Digital Billboards in San Jose.


  1. San Jose may never learn but the key ingredients to a vibrant & reliably entertaining downtown are still missing & have nothing to do with digital signage. Who has the free time & extra $$$? The relatively few who do continue to have much better options throughout the Bay Area. Most people however & especially the youth (who tend to be more social) are working several jobs & are putting ten of thousands of $$$/yr into a room in an old house or somebody’s converted garage.

    Nothing more expensive than “free time” in SJ.

  2. Is “gawdy” intended to be convey a sense of being worse than gaudy, or that billboards like that are bawdy, too?

  3. Not everyone received the survey. I think digital billboards would be much more attractively cosmopolitan than the fading murals that lack substance. Name an internationally and economically advanced city and you will name a city with billboards. They can be very tastefully created with 3D effects and more!
    Unfortunately, San Jose was going to allow non-city owned properties to offer billboards. They have recanted the offer and now only want to allow billboards to city owned properties. It is terrible for mom and pop small businesses that could have prospered from this opportunity.

  4. Again — why would you write “gaudy” as “gawdy” instead? Is it because some advertising or other material will be bawdy? Or is “gawd” the sound observers often will make when they spot these billboards?

  5. “Some 90% of over 2000 respondents to a recent Planning Department survey oppose digital billboards along San Jose freeways and 80% object to them on downtown buildings.” More people oppose Vagrant Camps along San Jose Freeways and in San Jose Parks and Creeks (see what the bike trail looks like along 87). Find a public Official that is willing to make the city and public spaces friendly to Taxpaying Residents and “..the residents of San Jose will enthusiastically support such a leader.” Clean up the blight and damage to the environment caused by the vagrants and transients first then maybe you can worry about a billboard.

  6. A vibrant downtown San Jose? Huh?

    How many decades have we heard San Jose politicians prattle on about bringing the downtown back? I suppose, just about as many as to come.

  7. I have walked the streets of downtown San Jose for the last 30 years.

    The giant electronic signs work their magic after you get out of your car and start walking around: Because they help tourists and new pedestrians decide which directions to walk towards at night, they can therefore can be positioned to link the isolated and balkanized city blocks together (the dead spots are caused by mixed-use planning, where the office buildings become dead spots at night after they close down, and make downtown seem less safe at night, when compared with Santana Row, Lincoln Ave – Willow Glen, University Ave – Palo Alto, and Castro St – Mountain View.)

    As an example, you can actually watch this happening when you are strolling from the Marriott, the Saint Claire, or the Convention Center, and standing at the corner of Johnny Rockets and Scott’s Bar and Grill: You have to decide: “Do I walk North up 1st Street? Or do I walk East towards San Jose State?” You will see that a lot of tourists will unconsciously decide to go East, because they see the Hammer Theater electronic billboard and think that food and fun might be found in that direction. And once they end up at Second Street by the Starbucks, they will look North, and suddenly see the Milkshake, Cookie, and Sandwich shops going up 2nd street.

    The second thing that the electronic signs will do, is it will help the restaurants and entertainment places increase their sales after dark, by lighting up the streets to enhance the perception of night-time safety, more unique than staying cooped up inside Valley Fair or the Great Mall, and creating a high-tech atmosphere more fitting for a capitol of the Silicon Valley.

    Yes, I agree that using L.E.D. displays to showcase high-tech art would do more than digital advertising would to give downtown more of an appeal to tourists who would normally visit San Francisco or glitzy Reno. But electricity and sign maintenance costs money unless they hook it to solar panels, and having advertisers pay helps generate revenue to help offset the costs.

  8. Why are we adding more city signage before we get rid of the trashy billboards in every neighborhood promoting alcohol and misogyny?

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