A divided Richmond City Council has rejected a zoning amendment that would allow a digital advertising billboard on the I-80 corridor for the troubled Hilltop business district. Leaders in the Hilltop district have urged the city to allow a digital billboard to promote the businesses there since 2007, but the city’s sign ordinance currently doesn’t allow such signs.
Last March, the city council directed staff from the Planning & Building Services Department to create a zoning amendment that would permit and regulate digital signage, according to associate planner Kieron Slaughter. And on Tuesday night, city staff recommended the council adopt the amendment. But the planning commission recommended the council only adopt the part of the amendment that would legalize the digital signs public service entities use, not the part that would permit the advertising billboards the Hilltop business community wants.
City council passed the planning commission’s recommendation with Councilmembers Eduardo Martinez, Gayle McLaughlin, Vinay Pimple and Mayor Tom Butt voting yes, and Councilmembers Jovanka Beckles, Nat Bates and Vice Mayor Jael Myrick voting no.
Digital billboards “are nothing but blight,” Butt said. He also questioned the effectiveness of digital signs in promoting business. “In the last election, one of our local companies bought essentially every billboard in Richmond, and filled them with political ads. Not one single person in these political ads prevailed in the election,” Butt said.
“I’m convinced that the primary drive in this whole thing is a profit motive from the sign industry,” he continued.
McLaughlin said a digital sign doesn’t match her vision for the city. “I would rather see public arts sculptures with lights that draw my attention to something subliminal, or some emotional feeling, than these bright blight of advertising subliminally affecting me by saying ‘Buy me,’ or ‘Buy this or buy that,’” she said.
But Beckles, Myrick and Bates supported the revisions that would allow and regulate digital signs. Beckles said she thinks they are “modern,” but she said the most important reason of her support is that “the community wants it. They have been fighting for this.”
Both Myrick and Bates said that there are digital signs all the way from Port of Oakland to Berkeley and along the I-80 freeway to the Pacific East Mall.
Myrick said that he supports the digital signs and wants them to come with some community benefits. “I look forward to us making sure we get it right, make sure the MOU [memorandum of understanding] that we vote on is solid,” Myrick said.
Pimple threw himself into the camp rejecting the revisions. He was concerned that the revisions would allow digital billboards in all three commercial districts in Richmond, including the Pacific East Mall area, the Macdonald Avenue area and the Hilltop Mall area. If the revisions were adopted, “The C3 zone on I-80 and Macdonald would have become open for digital advertising even though there was no demand from the community (including the business community) for such a sign,” Pimple wrote in an email after the council meeting. “The Pacific Mall sign would have been grandfathered in without a proper process.”
Pimple said in the email that he wants to “create more narrowly tailored provisions.”
Slaughter said these three areas were selected for fairness. “We want to at least make it fair,” Slaughter said, “so that our three main shopping districts were able to advertise and have signage to attract people to their businesses.”
In a letter to the planning commission, homeowners and business owners in the Hilltop District wrote that they support the amendment to permit the signs. They said in the letter that the amendment could help Hilltop Mall find a new owner, increase home values and bring more businesses and jobs to the area. Cesar Zepeda, the president of Hilltop District Neighborhood Council, said that the Hilltop community will keep pushing for a new ordinance to allow digital signs in the area.