Nearly 93% of San Jose residents are against it. South Bay astronomers have called it a “travesty.” And a city oversight committee says it would flout San Jose’s climate and roadway safety goals.
But when it comes down to whether San Jose should unravel its decades-old ban on new billboards, the 11-member City Council could have final say next month.
On Feb. 15, the council is scheduled to consider approving construction of two new LED-illuminated billboards along Highway 101. If it does so, the billboards would be the first signs legally built within the city in more than 36 years.
San Jose outlawed the construction of new billboards on public land in 1972 and citywide in 1985. At the time, the action was touted as a “very strong commitment on the part of the City Council to beautify the city.”
Airport Director John Aiken has asked the City Council to approve a contract with media company Clear Channel to build two new electronic billboards – each measuring 1,000 square feet – along Highway 101 on Mineta San Jose International Airport property. In exchange, Clear Channel has promised to remove eight traditional billboards within the city, pay the airport at least $600,000 a year and allow the airport to use 10% of the advertising time on the billboards to promote its services.
“I think there will be a big impact from those takedowns of billboards to the community,” Aiken told the city’s Airport Commission this week.
The city maintains that a 2007 contract reached with Clear Channel for advertising opportunities at the airport covers the new billboards and is legally sound. However, another billboard company, Outfront Media, argues that the contract excludes outdoor, free-standing billboards so the city would be required to initiate a new competitive bidding process.
After four hours of discussing the matter, the Airport Commission voted 5-1 to recommend for the second time in recent months that the City Council reject the billboard proposal and re-evaluate the policy that allowed it to get this far. Among their concerns, commissioners said the billboards would waste energy, shine too much light on the Lick Observatory, raise contract issues and distract drivers. They also cited overwhelming community opposition.
“The people have spoken and we’re not listening,” Commissioner Catherine Hendrix said. “I don’t want to see two billboards, I don’t want to see 22 billboards, I don’t think we need billboards in this city.”
Commissioner Ken Pyle said the billboards would be a “wasteful use of energy” and questioned how it would align with the city’s climate goals and Vision Zero – San Jose’s effort to eliminate traffic fatalities.
Councilmember David Cohen, the airport commission liaison, said Friday he was unsure which way he would vote next month. Cohen cited benefits such as removing dilapidated billboards and increasing airport revenue but added he has similar concerns as Pyle regarding consistency with the city’s climate goals.
“Obviously we’ve heard a lot of public opposition to the proposal and we’re just going to have to weigh all those various factors and decide what the best overall approach for these billboards and the overall policy is,” he said.
A city survey last year found that nearly 93% of San Jose residents opposed allowing new digital signs to be built along freeways.
But that report came more than two years after the city already put the wheels in motion to do just that.
In 2018, after years of lobbying from billboard companies, the City Council voted to allow up to 22 new digital signs and billboards to be built on 17 city-owned sites. That plan called for allowing new signs to be tacked onto a handful of city-owned downtown buildings, such as the Hammer Theatre and the Center for Performing Arts and parking garages, and adding new digital billboards on up to eight freeway-facing public properties, including some at the airport. City officials collected bids but have not yet awarded any contracts for those projects.
At the time of the vote, the measure passed seamlessly with almost no input from residents. On the day of the vote, the council only heard from billboard industry executives and lobbyists, the city’s tourism branch and representatives from the Lick Observatory, who were the only ones to voice issues with the proposal.
Since city leaders had already made this decision years ago and Clear Channel has followed the requirements laid out before it, airport officials argue that the project should not be rejected.
City leaders dropped a separate proposal by the city last year to allow private property owners to build up to 75 billboards on freeway-facing sites along Highway 87, Interstate 280 and Interstate 880 after facing intense public scrutiny.
At the Jan. 26 airport commission meeting, Paul Lynam, a staff astronomer at the Lick Observatory, accused airport officials of “an attempt to hoodwink the viewers” by saying that they consulted with astronomers from the observatory when they have only ever opposed it.
San Jose resident Les Levitt, who helped launch a grassroots effort No Digital Billboards in San Jose, hopes this latest vote will make it “increasingly difficult to ignore the growing sentiment against these billboards.”
“This should send a message to the City Council that twice – and this time after a very deliberative session, the airport commission is recommending against billboards at the airport,” he said, “and even further a revisit of the policy that led to having billboards at the airport.”