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New Sign Ordinance Proposed by the Planning Department – January 22, 2009

January 20th, 2009

This is an important meeting regarding murals in the City of LA.  As of now all fine art mural on private property are currently outlawed in the City of LA.  Come to this meeting to show that muralists will not stand for this.  Now is the time to stick up for murals and free speech in Los Angeles.

The City of Los Angeles Planning Department has proposed a new sign ordinance.  This ordinance is posted at the following link: on the web site under “Plans & Ordinances” – “Proposed Ordinances.”

This proposal is being presented at the Planning Commission meeting on Thursday, January 22, 2009.

Summary of Main Points
The proposed new sign code treats all murals the same as a commercial signs, supergraphics or billboards. All new signs, including murals must be no larger than 100 square feet in size.  Although all sign regulations should be content neutral, the Planning Department hopes to allow large fine art murals to only be allowed through a process where a building owner gives ownership of the mural to the city through an easement process. However, this easement process is not actually included in the currently proposed sign ordinance. The easement process is being left out in order to be dealt with at some future date by Cultural Affairs.  This is a big mistake.  The proposed sign ordinance is a complex puzzle, and all of the pieces need to be in place in order for it to function.

We have awaited over one year and a half for a new ordinance to regulate fine art murals on private property and they are still banned.  Yet, in three short weeks the entire sign code has been rewritten.  Muralists must use the momentum of the current effort to incorporate all issues related to murals into the current sign code.  All hand painted murals over 100 square feet should be the jurisdiction of the Cultural Affairs Commission and the Department of Cultural Affairs. If murals are dealt with at a later date, there will be few options available that will fit with the rest of the new sign code. The easement process as used in Portland for fine art murals is essentially a way to allow the city to regulate murals based on content.  This goes against the most basic goals of the revised sign code, which strives to be “content neutral.”  Building owners are unlikley to submit to a mandatory five-year easement on their property in order to get a permit for a mural.  Thus murals will be greatly discouraged under this plan.

Other cities such as Philadelphia have successful fine art mural programs that have produced thousands of beautiful murals and generated revenue from cultural tourism while successfully limiting abusive forms of outdoor advertising.

The city’s “Sign District” program which allows for relief from the standard sign regulations in select busy commercial districts, is unfair because muralists are required to remove permitted billboards in that sign district in order to participate in the program.  Since no new permits have been issued for a billboard since 2002 and few muralists or small sign companies have an existing inventory of billboard permits around the city, they are unable to participate in this program.

Outdoor signage can be effectively regulated by the “method of production” rather than on content.  Cities clearly have a right to limit the erection of a new physical structures such as a billboard if it blocks views or does not fit in with the existing urban environment. Vinyl supergraphics attached to the side of a building can be a fire hazard or could fall on someone.  Vinyls block out light inside offices, cause interiors to over heat and can impede rescue operations. Lighted billboards or electronic signs beam unwanted light into homes and businesses, are unsustainable from an energy conservation standpoint and can be lethal distractions to drivers. Method of Production is an enforceable method of objective sign control that is content neutral.

Hand painted murals respect the existing architecture and do not need to be lighted at night.  Murals can be a source of beauty that can give character and life to a commercial district or neighborhood while effectively abating vandalism.  Murals can employ large numbers of young muralists while telling the story of the culture of Los Angeles. We are going about the sign code in the wrong way. Instead of looking out for the fine artist and our cultural capital, we are limiting artists’ rights while appeasing the large multi-national sign companies that got us into this mess.

I urge you to reject the adoption of the proposed revision to the Los Angeles Sign Code and insist that the Planning Department work with the Department of Cultural affairs, the Cultural Affairs Commission and this city’s muralists to craft a program that respects our right to free expression and the cultural identity of this city.

Meeting and Correspondence Info
The hearing will take place after 8:30 AM on Thursday, January 22, 2009 at the Van Nuys City Hall, 14410 Sylvan Street Council Chamber, 2nd Floor Van Nuys, CA 91401. I encourage you to come to this meeting and/or submit a written comment on the proposal on or before the hearing date. If you cannot get to the meeting, you can send a letter of two pages or less to the Commission Secretariat, 200 North Spring Street, Room 532, Los Angeles, CA 90012 phone (213) 978-1300. If you cannot get a letter to the Secretariat before the meeting, you may bring it to the actual meeting. You must included 15 copies and the agenda item #4.  I also encourage you to contact the Mayor as well as any City Councilmembers as well as members of the public who will be impacted by this proposed ordinance so that they may work to influence the content of this poorly conceived of plan.

Some Good Aspects to Proposed Sign Ordinance Changes
There are some aspects of this proposed ordinance that could be an improvement over the existing sign code, and there are some measures that could actually reduce the spread of unsightly, distracting, unsafe and overzealous signage that has proliferated across our city.  However, in an effort to do this we are essentially banning murals. Furthermore, the new ordinance rewards the bad behavior of the large multi-national billboard companies that have been abusing the system, tying the city up in court and violating our visual environment. We find ourselves in the current situation because of the abuses of the large billboard companies.

I am going to break things down into parts in an effort to focus and simplify the main issues here.

Murals Must be Part of this Sign Code Now!
The Current proposal classifies murals as the same as a billboard, supergraphics or other signage. Like all other signs, no mural will be permitted larger than 100 square feet. Imagine a ten-foot by ten-foot mural. As anyone could tell you, most murals of consequence are much larger than 100 square feet in size. The plan is to allow fine art murals to be allowed at some future date when an easement process can be established.

I assert that murals cannot be put off until some later date to be dealt with after the dust has settled.  If murals are not dealt with now, we will have very limited options that will fit with the ordinance that is being passed now. Above all else I would like to see that the issue of murals be fully dealt with, one-hundred percent, with the current rewriting of the sign code.

Department of Cultural Affairs, the Cultural Affairs Commission, Public Review
I believe it is most appropriate for the City of Los Angeles Department of Cultural Affairs and the Cultural Affairs Commission to have jurisdiction over any original hand-painted mural over 100 square feet in size.  These murals should be reviewed by the Cultural Affairs Commission, a reasonable fee should be paid, a maintenance program and technical review should be done and the public should have an opportunity to review and comment on the proposal.

It is clear that the new sign ordinance is dependent on the adoption of the Portland RACC style easement process. I will talk about the problems with the easement process later. However, if it seems that an easement based mural ordinance is the only option that will work with the rest of the plan, then we should consider it now.  The sign ordinance is a large puzzle, and all the pieces must be in place in order to complete it.  Murals are a key aspect of this puzzle.  Clearly there is a large amount of momentum and force behind the effort to craft a new sign ordinance.  I have no faith that murals will be properly incorporated into the plan at some later date.  The Planning Department rewrote the entire sign ordinance in just three weeks.  Yet, we have been trying to get new regulations for murals for over one year and a half and murals are still banned. (since June of 2007)  Cleary where there is a will there is a way.  Don’t allow this moment to pass.  Otherwise all of the options and momentum will be lost.

We are going about this process backwards.  We should be erring on the side of protecting fine art murals, free expression and the artists.  Instead we are rushing to appease the large multi-national billboard companies while we push aside the muralists and our cultural heritage to be dealt with at some later date.

The current moratorium on signs and murals allows for multiple extensions of forty-five days.  This could give us over five more months to work out these issues.  This is plenty of time to fully vet the proposal and to work with the muralist community to craft a program that will work for us all.  It would be prudent to work for a few more weeks now instead of settling for a flawed system that will be in place for many years to come.  This does not mean we should drag our feet. But as long as the Planning Department is acting in a good faith effort to resolve the issues, the extension would be valid.

Easements are not the Answer for Fine Art Murals – No Portland RACC Plan
The Planning Department plan is to adopt the RACC Portland model, which allows for fine art murals on private property if the building owner gives ownership of the mural to the city through an easement process. By giving the city ownership of the mural, the city then has grounds for regulating content.  The court has ruled that an essential aspect of the RACC Portland model is that the city also must be a patron of murals.  Thus, the city must fund a portion of the mural work.  If the city is unable to fund mural commissions, then individuals can donate the easement and the mural to the city. The city can legally regulate content because it is the patron or client.  The assumption is that the city could not allow commercial messages to be part of a mural.  Of course the city would be free to disallow a mural with a message or painted in style that it did not approve of.  Once painted, the mural could not be legally changed or removed by the artist, the building owner or even a new tenant for a minimum of five years.

This is wrong in many ways.  The Planning Department asserts that one of the most essential aspects of the newly proposed sign code is that it is content neutral.  The City believes this is the only approach that will hold up in court. We are willing to allow the billboard companies to put up nearly any content they wish and change that content as often as they like with absolutely no review. (obscenity would be barred) There would be no additional fees for new advertisements each month. Yet, we would require a fine-art, community muralist to go through a lengthy community and board review and pay fees in order to paint a mural? A building owner is unlikely to give the city an easement on its property or agree to keep a mural regardless of its merits for five years when this could clearly be a barrier to the sale of the property or could discourage a new tenant that might find the mural inappropriate for its new business.  This will encourage blight.  The federal Visual Artist Rights Act and California state law already protect any mural with a minimum of ninety days notice before it can be removed.  Anything more stringent will essentially discourage building owners from allowing murals at all.

Not only will easements greatly discourage murals in Los Angeles, but the easement process is already being phased out of Portland because the program was considered a failure by the people of Portland.  Portland is not Los Angeles. There are very few murals in Portland and the city is completely distinct from Los Angeles in too many ways to list here.  The muralists of Portland reluctantly adopted the RACC easement process after having murals completely banned for seven years.  They accepted the easement as something better than nothing, and they are already moving beyond it.  Why are we trying to adopt a failed plan from a town that is one-eigth the size of Los Angeles?

In the current and future economic situation in Los Angeles it is unlikely that the City of LA will be able to be a “patron” of murals as the easement process requires.  Even if the City were to come up with several million dollars a year to commission murals, this would not create as many murals as a plan that allowed for muralists to simply find and get funding for their own projects using a combination of the free market and institutional grants. Building owners will be unlikely to give the City of LA an easement on their property. Besides that, the majority of murals are funded and approved by tenants, not building owners.  Under the easement process, building tenants would have no power to green light a mural.

Other Cities have Encouraged Murals while Discouraging Signage.
Over the recent holidays, I traveled to Philadelphia to see the murals that are part of the Mural Arts Program (MAP). This program, which is run by a non-profit and partially funded by the City of Philadelphia, was started by Los Angeles muralists Jane Golden in 1984 when Mayor Goode insisted that Golden start a mural program to work with youth and to abate graffiti.  Today over 2,800 murals have been produced through the program.  Over 10,000 people a year participate in formal mural program tours.  The city is covered with beautiful and magnificent fine art murals and has no problem with supergraphics, billboards, electronic signs or street posters.  There is not even much vandalism in Philly any more.  The program has put to work thousands of muralists and neighborhood youth over the years. The murals are a lucrative cultural tourist draw that tells the story of Philadelphia to the world. Their program is a model for cities all over the world and they have produced books and program replication packets. MAP even has an efficient mural maintenance program.  Why aren’t we looking more closely at this example?

Murals Permitted from 2002-Today, Non-permitted Murals  will be in Danger
In June of 2007 the City of Los Angeles decided that it had erred by allowing the Department of Cultural Affairs to have any sort of jurisdiction over fine art murals on private property.  The reason for this was because the city decided that in fact there was no working definition of a “mural” in the City Charter and that the Department of Cultural Affairs (DCA) had no jurisdiction over these matters.  It has been noted that even those DCA mural permits issued between the years of 2002 and 2007 are invalid.   Those murals could be cited and could be forced to be removed.  Currently there is no permit which will allows for a fine art mural, and even the new proposal only allows for a mural up to 100 square feet.
In reality the vast majority of murals in the City of Los Angeles never went through a formal DCA permitting process in the first place.  Many of these murals have become cherished cultural icons and symbols of neighborhood pride.  They are in grave danger. Many of these murals have already been cited and I know personally of at least fifteen murals that have been removed by their building owner or tenant under threat of steep fines and even possible jail time.

Sign District Program is only for a Small Monopoly of Billboard Companies
Under the proposed plan, only those companies with existing permits for billboards would be eligible to paint a mural or erect a new sign in one of the proposed special “Sign Districts.”  The Sign District plan requires that a company must remove an existing permitted sign in the vicinity of the new Sign District in order to erect or paint a new one.  The idea is to reduce signage as new signage is erected.  But because there has been a moratorium on any new billboards or mural/signs since 2002, only companies with a large number of permitted billboards in that specific district prior to 2002 are eligible to compete.  This creates an exclusive monopoly for a small number of large companies.  Muralists, and small sign companies founded after 2002 are locked out of all future work.  By creating a monopoly on who can erect signage in a market where signage is highly valued, we are keeping billboard prices artificially high. By creating such a gold mine for a small number of large companies, we have raised the stakes for these companies to the point that they will do anything to maintain their monopoly – including suing the City of Los Angeles.  Any new ordinance must be open to all companies and individuals if it is to be considered an alternative to the stringent new code that severely limits commercial and non-commercial speech.  Otherwise only those companies or individuals with extremely deep pockets will be able to express themselves in public in a meaningful way.

Proposed Solutions to the Problem
Alternative Method for Controlling Unwanted Signage
The City of Los Angeles has adopted the opinion that it is not defensible to regulate signage based on the content of a sign.  This is because the First Amendment to the United State Constitution protects free speech.  Some court rulings have found that commercial speech is equally protected speech under the First Amendment.  Thus the city cannot distinguish if a sign is meant to promote goods or services that are sold “on-premise” or “off-premise” or whether there is a corporate logo or product depicted in the sign.  The goal is to make the permit process as objective as possible for inspectors and the public to evaluate whether a sign is legal or illegal without having to get into subjective determinations related to content.  If this is the case and the city is not willing to fight for content-based regulations in court, than muralists should be equally free to express themselves as commercial advertisers.

However, this does not mean that we should allow our city to be covered with billboards, vinyl supergraphics, street posters or electronic billboards.

Regulate based on Method of Production – Not Content
It has been clearly established that a city or state has the right to enforce building codes of all sorts.  The most basic reason for this is safety and durability of the built environment.  However, cities have the right to make regulate based on aesthetics such as making sure that new buildings fit aesthetically and purposely with neighboring buildings. Through the zoning process certain types of buildings can be allowed and others excluded.  This same approach can be taken towards signage including murals.

The city could regulate the type of sign. For example a printed vinyl sign over 100 square feet draped over the side of a building could be barred based on the fact that it is an alteration of the physical environment. The vinyl could fall down and hurt some one or it could catch fire or even hinder rescue operations in the event of an emergency.  It is easy to distinguish between a hand painted, custom sign and one that is printed on vinyl. A vinyl alters the temperature of the offices inside and hinders workers from enjoying the intended purpose of their windows for ventilation and sight.  A large billboard is its own independent physical structure that can clearly be regulated by building codes.  A changing electronic display or heavily lighted billboard can cause “light leakage” which can disrupt sleep patterns when it beams into the bedrooms of neighboring homes.  Billboards and displays placed in such a way as to cause maximum distraction for drivers regardless of the existing architecture can be lethal distractions for drivers while destroying the existing aesthetics of a neighborhood.  The large amount of energy required to keep these signs and lights running is unsustainable.

Hand Painted Murals – A Work Program that is Good for our Community
By allowing muralists to seek out and execute their own mural commissions without the easement process, we could be providing thousands of jobs for our Los Angeles muralists. Mural commissions help struggling artists work as artists in a difficult economy. At-risk youth could be trained as assistants and could help to maintain murals across the city. Cultural murals can enliven a commercial district and give identity to our neighborhoods. Murals help local businesses by abating vandalism and by calling attention to responsible neighborhood businesses.  By starting with a pilot program for muralists and by actually involving muralists in a meaningful way in this process, we can craft a program that works for all stakeholders. We can do this while limiting the proliferation of abusive forms of outdoor signage. The murals of Los Angeles have proven to be a cultural tourist attraction that has helped to define our city.  The muralists of this city have been an essential part of making Los Angeles the most important art making metropolis in the world today.

Stash Maleski
ICU Art – In Creative Unity
2554 Lincoln Blvd #162
Venice, CA 90291
(310) 309-7756 phone • fax (310) 414-9932

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