The Sunset Strip is wired for a digital evolution as billboards along the iconic West Hollywood street transition from traditional static advertising. According to Bryan Eck, a senior planner for the city of West Hollywood leading the Sunset Boulevard Arts and Advertising program, 20 digital billboards will be built on the strip in the coming decade.
“We believe that because off-site advertising has been an integral part of the Sunset Strip for the past 100 years, we wanted to embrace it and really put the best standards in place and compel really great design,” Eck said.
At its meeting on Dec. 7, the West Hollywood City Council is expected to vote on the first billboard application to be processed under the recently adopted Sunset Boulevard Off-Site Signage Policy, which governs how static billboards can be converted. According to the policy, the Sunset Strip has the densest concentration of off-site signage (billboards and tall wall signs) on the West Coast.
Before bringing the item to City Council, the city’s Planning Commission unanimously voted 4-0 on Nov. 5 to convert the existing static billboard at 8743 Sunset Blvd. to a digital billboard. Vice Chair John Erickson and Commissioners Sue Buckner and Rogerio Carvalheiro recused themselves from discussing and voting on the project. Erickson said he was recusing himself in anticipation of joining the City Council, where he will be tasked with voting on the project. Carvalheiro said he was recusing himself because he was working on another project that falls under the policy. Buckner needed to recuse herself because she lived within a 500-foot radius of the project.
“The project replaces a static billboard with an exciting, digital experience that will include an ‘invisible frame,’ which will give it the appearance of floating in that the sky or existing background can be visible from behind the billboard from a specific location on the sidewalk. The technique uses cameras and integrates LED technology to create a billboard whose frame can ‘disappear’ as needed, creating a unique transparent experience,” the Planning Commission resolution read.
The resolution further stated that the development agreement promoted the “public interest and welfare” by creating a digital billboard that would provide “greater visual interest and excitement” on Sunset Boulevard, in addition to generating revenue for the city and also providing a platform for curated digital public arts programming and emergency programming as needed.
Before the vote, multiple West Hollywood residents spoke against the conversion, with one resident stating, “What about all of us that live north of Sunset Boulevard? Our quality of life is dwindling with every single project. While this is a great idea, it doesn’t belong there.”
Commissioner Lynn Hoopingarner, who praised the project’s creativity, raised concerns about the technology and asked to make a couple “tweaks” to the resolution including clearly addressing the reflectivity to ensure that people didn’t “go running off the road” due to the sun’s blinding reflection.
“The ‘wow factor’ is tremendous. The creativity and ingenuity is tremendous. And I think the city should be extremely proud to be the pioneer in going along this route,” Commissioner John Altschul said.
Eck said that depending on the upcoming council vote, he expected that both the “invisible frame” digital billboard as well as the newly created Sunset Spectacular digital billboard at 8775 Sunset Blvd., now in development, would be operational during the first half of 2021.
“As a pilot program, the Spectacular was great because it helped us understand and set expectations for what architecturally integrated and interesting billboards can be. And the reason the city pursued that was to share with the billboard industry and the off-site advertising industry what we thought was the most interesting kind of project that you can have; one that not only presented large-scale digital advertising, but also created public space,” he said, noting that the interior of the Spectacular would have digital projections allowing people to interact with it.
Eck said the city will earn 40% of ad sales at Sunset Spectacular, largely because the city owns the property.
Depending on the upcoming council vote, the pending revenue-share agreement for the digital billboard at 8743 Sunset Blvd. could be 30%. That expected revenue amount, Eck said, equates to $38 million over 30 years; and if the 10-year option to extend the agreement happens, he said that amount would increase to approximately $60 million.
Approximately 100 billboards currently line the Sunset Strip – roughly one every 75 feet, Eck said. All of them, he added, were deemed to be “legal and conforming” after the city allowed billboards without permits to be included in its stock in 2019.
Eck said that studies consistently found that the value of digital billboards was six to 10 times the value of a static billboard. Per industry guidelines, he said digital images can remain on the billboard for no fewer than eight seconds. The West Hollywood screens will also allow for full motion animation from sunset to 2 a.m.
Eck underscored that in moving forward to adopt the billboard policy in 2019, which he said took a decade to develop, safety was paramount. He said the city engaged lighting and traffic consultants to create standards that protect safety for motorists, pedestrians and nearby residents.
However, according to Patrick Frank, president of the Coalition for a Scenic Los Angeles (formerly the Coalition to Ban Billboard Blight), most billboards are fraught with challenges.
“Almost any billboard creates blight because it blocks the view and it impinges on your mental tranquility,” he said. “There are a couple of challenges related to digital billboards, the most important one is traffic safety. Numerous studies have shown that digital billboards distract drivers and contribute to accidents.”
Frank said the digital signs were particularly distracting given the content could change every eight seconds.
“And they’re more attractive,” he added. “They’re internally illuminated so they glow in the dark more. The changing aspect of them distracts drivers far more than a static billboard, so it draws the eyeball, and then you can make more money off of it because you rotate the signs.”
In addition, he said that a forthcoming design element in the billboard industry is to embed tracking devices in them to read data from the smart devices of those who pass by, giving the billboard companies access to people’s movements and demographics. In 2016, billboard company Clear Channel Outdoor Americas partnered with AT&T and other wireless providers to track mobile phone users who are in proximity to billboards.
“Digital billboards can now be programmed to the kind of people that are actually passing by. A lot of digital billboards are actually spying on you,” Frank said.
Eck said that beyond having “rigorous” demands to ensure that West Hollywood’s forthcoming digital billboards retain state-of-the-art technology by mandating upgrades every seven or eight years, the city was doing nothing to “prevent” or “enable” billboard companies from further profiteering off passersby whose own digital device connectivity could be used to further target advertising.
“We thought about all the angles on this, and none stand alone. We don’t do it just because the design is great. We don’t do it just because the revenue is great. We don’t do it just because of the arts component or the other associated public benefits,” Eck said. “It really is the coordinated approach to bringing vibrancy to the Sunset Strip based on an asset that has long characterized the Sunset Strip. It is really thought through, and no piece stands alone.”
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