Palo Alto pulls the plug on proposed billboard

City Council drops plan to install digital billboard along U.S. Highway 101

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.


Like this comment
Posted by resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 29, 2013 at 7:43 am

The billboard would not be consistent with community values, the Mayor
said. He agreed with residents who called it garish, tacky, anti-environment. Now since we established community values and aesthetics
as important, a major step forward, let's apply this to everything else
the City is doing.

Like this comment
Posted by Seriously?
a resident of University South
on Oct 29, 2013 at 9:08 am

Wow, Scharff is now concerned with what the community values. Where was his concern when he approved the three PC projects and all the high density office buildings that required rezoning? They violated the Comprehensive Plan which expresses our land use values, so he just amended the Plan. It's legal and his friends and clients made millions at the expense of the residents who suffer the consequences of increased traffic, parking shortages, school overcrowding, limited infrastructure capacities, etc.

I guess Scharff could vote against a billboard because none of his buddies would be making millions of dollars from building it.

Does Scharff really think we believe that he is concerned about community values?

Like this comment
Posted by Elizabeth
a resident of Midtown
on Oct 29, 2013 at 10:19 am

A glimmer of intelligence from the City!

Now if they can just reprogram those horrible speed signs on Alma so they only start blinking if someone is actually exceeding the speed limit.

Distractingly dangerous and incredibly annoying. Don't nag me if I'm driving several miles below the speed limit to tell me I need to slow down.

We're out in the streets to live life and it feels like we've been dragged back to the virtual world.

Like this comment
Posted by Kate
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Oct 29, 2013 at 10:28 am

Be careful what you propose, vote for........ There's an election in the future - and this town's collective civic memory is getting shorter and shorter ----tinged with rage. Reminds me of children being "good" six months before Christmas.

Like this comment
Posted by Anymouse
a resident of Midtown
on Oct 29, 2013 at 11:38 am

I agree with all above comments, I do believe the City Council is aware that most Palo Altans are of the opinion of poster 'Seriously?"

@Kate, reminds me of house cleaners suddenly cleaning properly a month before Christmas.

Like this comment
Posted by resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 29, 2013 at 12:27 pm

Every day I see another street sign. We are undergoing massive sign proliferation. They are taking over the City. Gratuitous signs, redundant signs,sign clutter just reduces the effectiveness of those signs which are actually needed. We will end up in the Guinness Record Book - small city category - the most signs/linear foot of street.

Like this comment
Posted by Consider the Cost
a resident of Greater Miranda
on Oct 29, 2013 at 1:21 pm

Did the council finally find out the true cost of these billboards?? Apparently, it is $200,000+! And advertising income from it isNOT a sure thing!

That money is needed elsewhere, and spending priorities need to be set first.

Like this comment
Posted by JerryL
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Oct 29, 2013 at 1:25 pm

Sorry not to go along. But I remember when that area had the drive-in
movie screens. I didn't see a problem then and I am not sure I see a problem

In the same general area, we put up huge sound walls, which have to be blocking many folks view of the freeway and distant bay lands. Somehow, that's not a problem. But this money producer apparently would be.

That reminds me of some recent criticisms of cell phone projects. One of the criticisms were that the hosting organization was going to be (ugh) paid for letting a piece of their property be used. As if receiving rent were somehow bad.

Like this comment
Posted by Nmc
a resident of Green Acres
on Oct 29, 2013 at 11:13 pm

If this council had not allowed a developer to get away with what was done at Miki's market, we would be getting retail revenue taxes from the revitalized businesses there now, instead of a daily unpleasant reminder of the new Palo Alto values of ugly and dense.

Like this comment
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 30, 2013 at 7:51 am

I don't understand what the problem is.

A Vegas-style flashing billboard seems completely consistent with the current Staff and Council's own "stealth Comprehensive Plan" for Palo Alto.

Like this comment
Posted by Downtowner
a resident of Menlo Park
on Oct 30, 2013 at 10:35 am

I agree with Elizabeth about the blinking yellow signs on Alma. If I speed up, will they stop? They are annoyingly & possibly dangerously distracting. At 29 mph in a 35 mph zone, northbound in moderate traffic last Sunday afternnon, they were a distraction no drivers needed. Instead of focussing on traffic & cars entering from the right, bright yellow blinking lights pull drivers' attention away from the road.

Like this comment
Posted by Resident
a resident of Charleston Meadows
on Oct 30, 2013 at 11:33 am

I am concerned that a lengthy article concerning this topic appeared in the San Jose Mercury News today 10/30/13. It gives the impression that "staff" is investing time, money, and publication in local papers the investigation of these schemes before they are discussed within the overall budget for the city. It is like gaming the system and forcing people's hand in the public. That is totally unnecessary.
Can the city please provide a comprehensive plan and budget for the city review and comment prior to green-lighting the time and expense to take positions on controversial ventures and then forcing the CC to arbitrate the outcome with the public. That calls into question what else the "staff" has on their list of "ideas". It calls into question if the tail is wagging the dog or the dog is wagging the tail.

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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