In 2015, city leaders seeking to define the future of San Jose went on a junket to Denver and became mesmerized by the digital signs that Rocky Mountain city decided would make its downtown Theater District more “exciting.”
The bright, shiny digital billboards and seductive promise to Denver’s government of revenue from advertising started a process San Jose City officials have championed for the past five years — to make our city more like Denver.
Now, that future has arrived. The San Jose City Council, prompted by the billboard industry to go way beyond the original concept, is proposing to allow installation of as many as 90 large format digital billboards along roadways and gateways to downtown — something that will have an impact on every citizen and visitor to San Jose for decades to come.
The next time you’re appreciating the city’s backdrop of beautiful foothills or admiring its growing skyline, imagine the same scene but with intrusive digital billboards flaunting garish advertisements day and night.
Worse yet, San Jose has created a downtown “sign intensification zone” apparently with no limits to the number of new digital or conventional billboards. We’re not talking about signs like those on the Convention Center or the California Theater that highlight events at these venues. We are talking about adding new signs with blinking and moving advertising promoting products and services on everything from free standing poles to building facades, and on public right of way street furniture.
Think about our downtown today and try to imagine a digital advertising dystopia that could easily overwhelm and negate all of the positive work that has been done to create our emerging sense of place. In fact, almost nothing will destroy the distinctive character of a place faster than uncontrolled signs and billboards.
It doesn’t have to be this way and for the past 35 years it wasn’t. San Jose has had a ban on new billboards since 1985. At that time Gary Schoennauer, the director of planning, said, “The ban is an expression of a strong commitment on the part of the City Council to beautify the city.”
A Mercury News article at the time quoted Planning Department officials saying the ban would “encourage the revitalization of the downtown core and major thoroughfares”.
The Arts Commission sent a motion to the City Council stating they “support the Planning Department staff report regarding limitation of signs in major downtown areas and corridor accesses to the city, and recommend doing a study to eliminate advertising on buses and street furniture.” Even the faith community chimed in expressing support for the billboard ban.
Our leaders 35 years ago understood what we should understand today. San Jose is not Denver. We don’t have a theater district or a Times Square. We don’t have nearly the same urban scale. We are a small-town big city with a pipeline of exciting development projects and a leadership role as an environmentally conscious city.
We, the people of San Jose, should define San Jose from that same leadership perspective, charting our own course for urban planning once more shielded from the avaricious billboard lobby by a reinstatement of the city’s 1985 ban on new billboards.
And of all things, we should never fall for the ploy that revenue from electronic billboard advertising (the antithesis of art) ought to be used to fund, of all things, arts and culture initiatives.
Let’s stop spending tax payer money paving the way for digital billboards and get city resources back on track addressing the higher priorities and real problems we face. San Jose should be smarter than Denver.
Les Levitt is a founding member of No Digital Billboards in San Jose and a 30-year resident of District 3.