As San Jose leaders consider allowing two digital billboards to be built at the airport, three more may be quietly coming to the city.
Documents obtained by San José Spotlight show the city signed a notice of intent for billboards at Highway 87 and West Mission Street, as well as 1404 Mabury Road and another at Interstate 880, south of Highway 87. These billboards have not gone before the city Airport Commission and were not be part of the City Council’s Tuesday vote where they gave contingent approval for two other billboards.
Dan Connolly, chair of the San Jose Airport Commission, said he is especially concerned because he found out about this project through a public records request, despite having a robust discussion on digital billboards in relation to the city’s master plan at a meeting two weeks ago.
“It does seem that (the city) knew this was going on and chose not to make it part of master plan from the very beginning… because they probably didn’t want to bring public attention to it,” Connolly told San José Spotlight. “I think that (OutFront Media’s proposed billboard) creates more of a problem than the other two billboards, to be honest, based on where it’s located.”
Across the runway
The billboard at I-880 proposed by OutFront Media would be located near the end of the airport runway, which means it could be subject to Federal Aviation Administration guidelines. When Connolly requested the proposal be agendized at the next Airport Commission meeting, his request was denied.
“Honestly I do not understand how they can think that the airport would not be involved. It’s blatantly right there across from our runway,” Connolly told San José Spotlight, noting concern over a lack of transparency from city officials.
The decision to keep the commission out of the loop did not make much sense to him because the City Council sent plans for the two other proposed billboards back to the commission in November 2021.
When the Airport Commission reviewed plans to build two digital billboards at the airport in late January, commissioners voted 5-1 to reject the proposal due to community pushback, light pollution, energy use and transparency throughout the process. The plans faced previous hurdles, including a city survey that found more than 90% of respondents were against digital billboards.
At the meeting, commissioners questioned the city’s failure to set a competitive bid for those sites. Instead, the city amended its existing contract with Clear Channel to break the city’s ban on digital billboards and give the company the green light.
OutFront Media sent a letter at the time challenging the city’s failure to set a competitive bid, as it wanted an opportunity to profit from the lifted ban, but did not mention it already had one bid in the process of approval.
Elisabeth Handler, a spokeswoman for the city’s economic development department, said the OutFront project is still under environmental review and is finalizing lease terms and parameters. She said no contract has been approved and would not be without a vote from the City Council. It’s unclear when it will come up for a vote.
“The notice of intended award does not end the city’s due diligence on the issues raised by proposers, which continues,” Handler said. “The council will not receive a recommendation from staff to approve a project that does not conform to all applicable guidelines.”
San Jose’s request for proposals pertaining to billboards was sent out in August 2019. The city received about 20 bids, but only awarded grants for three billboards by July 2021. Guidelines for qualifying proposals required sites to be on public, city-owned property. Approved bids also require the business to take four other billboards down to reduce clutter in the city and give San Jose at least 35% of its revenue and 10% of its display time to highlight city events or important messages.
Jason Hemp, one of the founders of grassroots group No Digital Billboards San Jose, said he was incredibly shocked and angry to find out about the proposed projects through a public records request. The group formed in late 2020 in response to the city’s plans to lift its 36-year ban on digital billboards and has organized opposition since.
“I think this is just another example of the lack of transparency that we only learned about recently,” Hemp told San José Spotlight. “The office of economic development did send out a notice of intent, but local residents, we never saw it. I don’t even know if it was released publicly.”
Hemp said the public should’ve known about the 10-day protest period, but Handler said it was just for proposers to protest the outcome of their bid — not for residents to speak up about concerns.
“We were worried the City Council approving the other digital billboards would open the floodgates,” Hemp said. “I guess we were right.”
Contact Jana Kadah at [email protected] or @Jana_Kadah on Twitter.