The fight against digital billboards in San Jose heats up
“The idea that San Jose can be the next Times Square (above) is an illusion and it's misguided," said Ben Leech, executive director of Preservation Action Council of San Jose. Photo courtesy of Geoff Brooks on Unsplash.

    A local grassroots organization is urging lawmakers to halt plans for erecting electronic billboards throughout San Jose.

    In 2018, the San Jose City Council approved Phase 1 of a two-part plan that would increase the number of digital signs in the city. Phase 1 would allow up to 22 billboards on 17 city-owned sites.

    The council is expected to discuss Phase 2 at a Feb. 25 study session. Phase 2 would allow for freestanding billboards on private property along freeways and would let companies put digital signs on private buildings downtown.

    San Jose has long prioritized exploring putting billboards on public property as a revenue source.

    But John Miller, co-founder of the grassroots organization No Digital Billboards in San Jose, wants the city to deprioritize billboards and stop Phase 2 in its tracks.

    Miller maintains the city is catering to the billboard lobby, rather than looking out for residents’ interests.

    Proponents of the plan, including Scott Knies, executive director of the San Jose Downtown Association, look forward to the visual variety.

    “We have always viewed reasonable digital signs in downtown San Jose with the potential of adding color, lights and excitement to the center city,” Knies said.

    The city has championed the billboard plan for its potential to bring in revenue for the city and remove “blight” caused by unsightly traditional signs. In order to put a new digital sign up on freeway-facing property, four traditional billboards must be taken down, according to the proposal.

    But one element of Phase 2 would give companies permission to put more digital signs on buildings downtown — without needing to remove old billboards.

    An ongoing debate

    Martina Davis from the city’s planning department said electronic billboards could create a “sense of place” and “visual excitement” in San Jose, but Miller and others aren’t convinced.

    He said digital signs containing “unlimited commercial messages” would negatively change the look and feel of the city, destroy its historic character and harm the environment.

    San José Spotlight previously reported on community opposition to digital billboards in July. Residents worried light pollution would affect the night sky, harm bird migration and distract drivers.

    Davis said a key benefit to more billboards is that the city would benefit financially. For each new billboard on public property, the city could get up to 35% of a billboard company’s advertising revenue, said economic development spokesperson Elisabeth Handler.

    Unlike Phase 1, Phase 2 — which allows digital signs on private property — will not bring in any extra money for the city, leaving critics such as Miller wondering why the city would progress to Phase 2 in the first place. He said billboard companies are to blame.

    “Back in 2014, in the year before it was declared a priority by the city, it wasn’t as if the City Council was receiving telephone calls from constituents saying what this town really needs are digital billboards,” Miller said. “Now they’ve got telephone calls and people knocking on their door from the billboard lobby that wanted to change the existing laws because digital billboards are so much more profitable for them than conventional billboards.”

    Earlier this month, lobbyist Pete Carrillo met with Councilmembers David Cohen and Matt Mahan for billboard client Outfront Media. Between 2018 and 2019, Carillo discussed billboards with more than two dozen city officials, according to public disclosures.

    Carrillo also discussed the city’s signage plans with officials on three separate occasions in 2018 on behalf of Clear Channel and its affiliates — another billboard provider.

    Miller has been pushing back against the lobby’s efforts since September. No Digital Billboards has collected 500 signatures on a petition to ban digital billboards in San Jose.

    Preserving historic signage

    Ben Leech, executive director of Preservation Action Council of San Jose, was one of those who signed the petition. He said the notion that digital signs will make downtown more exciting is billboard industry “propaganda.”

    “The idea that San Jose can be the next Times Square is an illusion and it’s misguided,” Leech said. “Enhancing the historic built environment, and contemporary architecture — that’s not advertising driven — is really the only way to make any place seem authentic and unique. Advertising isn’t going to do that.”

    He said historic architecture and signs are essential to maintaining the integrity of a city. Preservation Action Council has worked to preserve historic signage, including the dancing pig. Leech said there’s a key distinction between preserving landmarks and throwing digital signs near historic locations.

    “There’s a real categorical difference between signs that embody the history and culture of a place that advertise a local business or tell a story about entrepreneurship versus a TV screen that changes every seven seconds, and has no connection to the place that it’s located,” Leech said.

    Handler countered the city is also looking to have a local artist supported element to signs downtown to make new electronic signs “fun and culturally engaging.”

    San Jose resident Jason Hemp — another member of No Digital Billboards — said he worries more for the aesthetic impact on areas outside downtown.

    “I really enjoy when I drive like to San Francisco, for example, I really enjoy the visual aesthetics and beauty of how amazing the Bay Area is with the green hills along the way in stark contrast to coming down 101, where there’s a billboard every half mile,” Hemp said. “I couldn’t imagine just seeing that multiply exponentially around here.”

    An environmental impact report for Phase 1 is underway and the City Council could vote to approve Phase 2 as soon as this spring.

    Contact Carly Wipf at [email protected] or follow @CarlyChristineW on Twitter.


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