Residents aren’t happy about the prospect of San Jose turning into Times Square with flashy billboards and bright lights, according to a new citywide survey.
The poll, which surveyed 2,000 residents, found 91% of respondents were either “strongly opposed” or “somewhat opposed” to new digital billboards in the city, regardless if they are built on public or private property. More than 85% of those surveyed were “somewhat opposed” or “strongly opposed” to adding new digital billboards along freeways even if the city promised to remove billboards elsewhere. Around 61% of respondents were “strongly opposed” to adding new billboards downtown, regardless if the billboards were digital or not.
The poll comes as the city has decided to halt Phase 2 of the billboard program, which proposed erecting digital billboards on private property, due to community backlash. Phase 1 of the project has been implemented, although no companies have reached an agreement with the City Council to build new billboards yet.
“If they (residents) don’t like digital billboards, they don’t like them on private property, they don’t like them on public property,” No Digital Billboards co-founder John Miller said.
The campaign claims that any new billboards would cause a massive distraction to drivers because of their size, the fact that they are usually brighter than static billboards and could have potential environmental impacts.
“The next step is to remind the City Council of that reality,” Miller said.
The survey was conducted in response to a heated debate over what to do with current billboards along highways that run through San Jose, as well as potential new digital billboards. The survey addressed Phase 2 of a two-part plan that would place electronic billboards on public buildings downtown and up to 75 digital signs on private property along freeways.
The San Jose City Council halted Phase 2 in late February. For each new billboard on public property, the city could receive 35% of a billboard company’s advertising revenue, according to city officials.
In 2018, the San Jose City Council approved Phase 1 of the plan, which allows up to 22 billboards on 17 city-owned sites: 13 of those sites are in downtown, while four are located at the San Jose International Airport. Of the 17 sites, eight of them are reserved for freeway-facing billboards.
Four of the downtown sites—SAP Center, McEnery Convention Center, the San Jose Center for the Performing Arts and the Hammer Theater—are allowed two signs, while the rest are allowed one sign, according to city documents. No signs are up as of yet, as the project ran into delays such as COVID-19.
The survey results, while focused on Phase 2, might be at least a consideration for councilmembers when the city eventually does receive proposals for new billboards under Phase 1.
“How we’re going to use that data when it comes to bringing to council these requests for proposals … I’m not sure, but I have a hard time believing it’s not going to come up,” said Martina Davis, a planner with the city’s Department of Planning, Building and Code Enforcement.
While surveyed residents and groups like Miller’s No Digital Billboards are overwhelmingly against the proposal, organizations like the San Jose Downtown Association have shown support for it. They agree with the city’s claims that billboards would bring much-needed revenue, although official presentations haven’t been entirely clear on how much revenue billboards would bring.
“We thought, in supporting this, was that it would increase visibility for arts groups and bring vitality to the downtown. Possibly better lighting in different corridors,” said Nate LeBlanc, the association’s business development manager. He added the association considers the billboard issue a “settled matter” after the city decided to pause Phase 2.
San Jose has had a citywide ban on new billboards since 1985 due to community concerns about blight, visual clutter and the possibility for objectionable messages. Miller believes that public opinion should push the city to keep the ban permanently in place.
“Where’s the evidence that billboards will create urban vibrancy?” Miller said. “In the imagination of the billboard lobby.”