After flickering for just long enough to enrage the public, Palo Alto's plan to install a digital billboard along U.S. Highway 101 quickly fizzled on Monday night.
Under a proposal that surfaced last week, the billboard would have been installed on a city-owned parcel near the eastern end of Colorado Avenue, along 101. Staff estimated that the board would generate between $700,000 and $1 million in revenues to fund infrastructure repairs.
But after receiving dozens of angry letters and hearing numerous critical comments about the billboard proposal from nearby residents, the council voted 7-0, with Gail Price and Karen Holman absent, to kill the idea once and for all. After the briefest of discussions, Mayor Greg Scharff sided with the handful of residents who spoke at the Monday meeting. The digital board would not be consistent with the community values, Scharff said, echoing the residents' comments.
"I agree with the community," Scharff said. "Or at least the 50 people who've written letters."
Councilman Greg Schmid agreed and said the area along West Bayshore near the proposed site is one of the few places along the thoroughfare where you can actually see the Bay. Local residents can currently watch the sun rise on the East Bay hills. A billboard at the proposed location would jeopardize that, he said.
Vice Mayor Nancy Shepherd concurred and said she hopes the council will not have to consider this idea again going forward.
The idea of installing a digital board has been lingering in the background since 2009, when the city was going through an economic downturn and desperately seeking new revenue sources to close budget gaps and pay for needed infrastructure. Officials briefly considered having a billboard near the auto dealerships on Embarcadero Road, but quickly agreed that the site's proximity to the Baylands makes it ill-suited for flashing advertisements. Since then, staff has been considering alternatives, including, most recently, the Colorado Avenue parcel.
"This really is just a matter of leaving no stone unturned in a sense, as far as presenting ideas to the council," City Manager James Keene said Monday.
He quickly added, however, that the city's overall financial situation has gotten better since the period of time when the idea was first floated.
The proposal faced plenty of heat Monday from Midtown residents, several of whom urged the council on Monday not to go any further. Michael Hmelar argued that placing the billboard just south of Greer Park, as proposed, would not fit in with the area's "general aesthetics" and warned about the city being transformed into a "high-density metropolis."
Annette Glanckopf, vice chair of the Midtown Residents Association, said she's been getting plenty of reaction from her neighborhood about the billboard idea, all negative. The digital board, she said, would distract drivers, endanger Baylands birds and prompt other businesses to pursue similar advertising means.
"This is a serious step in commercialization of Palo Alto, with a slippery slope," Glanckopf said.
Stepheny McGraw agreed and recalled Lady Bird Johnson's famous highway-beautification campaign, which included getting rid of billboards.
"Who'd ever think that a 30-year-plus resident like me would come to envy the highways of Texas for maintaining more charm and character than Palo Alto," McGraw said.
The council's strong and unanimous reaction quickly put residents' anxieties to rest. So did Keene's assurance to Scharff at the conclusion of Monday's quick discussion.
"Just so we're clear with this, Mr. Mayor, we're done with this forever," Keene said.