A three-month moratorium to draw up regulations for electronic signs and billboards marks the latest phase of the city’s long-running penchant for regulating — and restricting — various forms of outdoor advertising. Starting with the first major burst of activity more than 40 years ago, we’ve seen the demise of various forms of signage that included the ludicrous eradication of several tigers painted on the chimney of a well-known downtown hotel. More recently, zealous elected officials have actively crusaded against billboards and an entire City Council one mayor ago with scant opportunity for discussion rammed through a resolution that outlawed all outdoor electronic signs.
Denial, though, begs ingenious craftiness, and scores of businesses bought smaller electronic displays designed for indoor use and placed them in windows where they were easily seen from the street. An animated sign promoting an attorney’s legal services at the southwest corner of West Broadway and Stadium Boulevard kicked off the present ruckus. One might darkly suggest some of our solons were either jealous of this particular solicitor or had a dark view of the nature of his legal practice.
Sign animation has been around for more than a century. A digital clock utilizing dozens of small electric bulbs shows up in a photograph of wreckage taken after the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire. In 1928, the well-known Times Square “zipper” began flashing the news in a continuously moving stream of figures encircling the old Times Building at the famous crossroads. Time and temperature signs began to appear here in the ’60s. Now the technology is entirely electronic, and what you see, in effect, are huge television screens capable of animation in full color. A slam dunk for their approval here would be inclusion of emergency-messaging capability from the Joint Communications Center.
There’s simply no rational reason to forbid electronic signs except perhaps as to their size, location and certain aesthetic considerations. As for potential driver distraction from electronic signage, this could become a laughable exercise knowing the city cops about $70,000 a year from its busses gaudily splashed with advertising messages designed to be equally distracting. As for signs of a different sort, the city should poke around in its own house and remedy its heretofore paltry efforts at public signage of a very essential, non-illuminated variety.
Missing the Mark
Visitors often complain about how poorly the city’s streets are marked and signed. A city official once asked if it was possible to make Columbia’s street signs larger and was curtly told that “there was only one size”
— an incredible response from someone charged with overseeing much of the community’s infrastructure at the time. A fire official queried some- what later said that including block numbers on street signs was irrelevant because the department had its own location system in place.
City-owned street signs are presently too small and often poorly placed. The next generation of street signs should be two or three times their present size and include block numbers referenced against the meridian streets of Broadway and Garth Avenue. Large illuminated signs found in many Western cities should be placed above our major intersections.
Finally, if glare is a concern from the eventual onrush of electronic signs, here, too, the city has plenty to do to keep its own house in order. Although there’s been a slow, steady progress installing full cut-off street lighting fixture to reduce glare and skyward light pollution, hundreds of older fixtures make it difficult to see and drive at night when weather is inclement.
Electronic signage is on the way, and in a few years we’ll think nothing of these animated displays just as our neighboring communities have already embraced them.