UPDATE: San Jose sets stricter rules for future billboards
A Clear Channel Outdoor billboard at the corner of Stockton Avenue and The Alameda in San Jose near the SAP Center on Aug. 11, 2022. Photo by Joseph Geha.

    San Jose has new requirements to build billboards in the city, but it’s unclear when the advertisements will pop up.

    San Jose is looking to establish digital billboards at several city-owned properties like the San Pedro Street parking garage and another at Third and San Carlos streets, as well as the Hammer Theatre, Center for Performing Arts, San Jose McEnery Convention Center and The Tech Interactive. Bidding is underway and officials hope to award contracts by next fall.

    On Tuesday, the City Council unanimously approved stricter requirements that mandate six existing billboards to be removed for every new one installed, an increase over a previous 4-to-1 ratio. Councilmembers also set rules that digital billboards need to be powered by green energy, and that any trees removed for a billboard be replaced.

    “I do think it is important (while we are looking to award billboard contracts) that we make sure we put together criteria that are going to give us more benefit then we already have,” Councilmember David Cohen said. “So strengthening this criteria today makes sense.”

    Some advocates against more advertisements aren’t impressed by the requirements. Jason Hemp, co-founder of No Digital Billboards San Jose, said the 6-to-1 takedown ratio doesn’t matter if contracts are given to smaller companies that don’t already have billboards in the city to remove.

    “The city told us they wanted to open up the prospective bidders to billboard companies that don’t necessarily own billboards in San Jose, which could mean none will be taken down,” Hemp told San José Spotlight. “The biggest thing that still stands for us is that we have zero details of what the billboards are going to look like, the size of them, the dimensions or where they’re going to be mounted on the buildings.”

    Mayor Sam Liccardo suggested for future contracts, the city provide an option for billboard operators to pay a fee instead of taking down billboards. It could not apply for the current six contracts open for bidding because the process has already started.

    Elisabeth Handler, spokesperson for the city’s office of economic development, said there is no requirement for how quickly billboard companies should erect the advertisements. She could not disclose what the billboards will look like because the city has not picked which projects to move forward with.

    “There’s no way of saying when it will be built when it’s in the hands of private companies that have their own schedules,” Handler told San José Spotlight. “The plan was to have these done a long time ago.”

    Allowing new billboards on public land has been a lengthy, contested process in San Jose, following the council’s landmark decision in 2018 to lift a nearly 50-year ban on such advertisements.

    The No Digital Billboards group, which has long criticized the city’s plan to allow billboards, points to a survey showing 91% of residents don’t support the addition of digital billboards. Hemp said digital billboards use 46% more energy than regular billboards, which could be detrimental if the city experiences rolling blackouts.

    Paul Lynam, a resident astronomer at the Lick Observatory, said light pollution from digital billboards would impact research.

    “Opening the door to electric billboards has been a misstep that stains this council’s legacy,” Lynam said. “Digital billboards contribute toward losing the night, it reduces opportunity for scientific discovery.”

    Earlier this year, the city amended an airport master plan and authorized billboard company Clear Channel Outdoor to install two 1,000-square-foot digital billboards south of Highway 101 at Mineta San Jose International Airport. The city hammered out a deal with Clear Channel in real time, negotiating with the company to pull down a dozen older, static billboards around the city in exchange for two digital ones. The new requirements apply to this contract as well. The billboards have yet to be removed.

    Just a few months later in July, San Jose was hit with a lawsuit by Outfront Media, a competing billboard company, who said the city should have held a competitive process to collect bids for billboards from other vendors to build at the airport. The city also had to reissue its original bid released in 2019 because of a technical violation.

    Contact Jana Kadah at [email protected] or @Jana_Kadah on Twitter.

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