Digital kiosk
A digital kiosk proposed for downtown San Diego. Courtesy of the city

The San Diego City Council is about to decide whether to abandon more than 40 years of principled opposition to new outdoor adverting, a stance that has preserved the uniquely unblighted scenic beauty of our city for decades.

San Diego was the first to take a case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, establishing its legal authority to limit outdoor advertising clutter in the 1981 case Metromedia v. San Diego. The city then became a nationwide leader when it froze the number of billboards at those existing in 1983.

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Now the council is poised to abandon its pioneering role by approving as many as 75 giant, TV-like digital ad kiosks downtown. This radical reversal of decades of progressive policy will blanket our streetscapes with ads bombarding our vision 24-hours-a-day.

Mayor Todd Gloria was a councilmember in 2013 when the Land Use and Housing Committee rejected a developer’s bid to demolish sign limits by draping downtown with nearly 100 building wraps and other ad media, including kiosks like those now envisioned.

Now the Mayor has abandoned his past defense of our city’s distinct character, using his power under the strong mayor system to sidestep transparent review of this drastic zoning exception. Four no votes at the June 6 council meeting are required to prevent San Diego from becoming just another ad-blighted city.

Rumors are rampant at City Hall that the ad screens are just the tip of the iceberg. Next will be a wholesale dismantlement of sign limits — so expect wraps, digital billboards, and other visual litter in the near future. This explains why unprecedented exceptions to sign limits are proposed for the paltry sum of about $600,000 in total revenue per year for the general fund.  There is no plausible motive other than to incrementally erode our sign limits by auctioning our field of vision to the highest bidder.

Doing so will brand our elected council as less progressive than appointed Port Commissioners, who in 2018 rejected similar ad kiosks along our waterfront by the same vendor, IKE Smart City. Debate on those kiosks lasted for a year and included a robust discussion of the data-gathering technology contained in these devices.  But this year, the info-capturing capabilities of interactive signs have been obfuscated in staff reports and minimized in ad agency testimony — and not even explained in the agreement the council will vote on.

It’s a stunning turnabout that councilmembers who claim to be most concerned about remedying the city’s entrenched patterns of inequality and addressing climate change are embracing an industry that stands for the opposite. The internet is replete with critiques of the advertising business as one that targets poor communities, promotes unhealthy consumerism and over-consumption, spews visual pollution, and accelerates climate change.  No elected official can claim to be progressive while backing this regressive policy reversal.

When our sign limits were in ad agency gunsights in 2013, the City Attorney’s office issued two thorough analyses warning that exceptions weakening our sign law threaten the legal defensibility of the city’s longstanding freeze on outdoor ads. This time, city staff reports parrot ad agency talking points by disingenuously characterizing the illuminated, animated screens as “wayfinding” tools.

But it’s embarrassingly apparent they are commercial ad platforms. The vast majority of San Diegans and visitors have directions at their fingertips in their cell phones. The specious claim we need ad kiosks on our sidewalks to connect us to the internet is blushingly fake.

Planning Commission Chairperson William Hofman said it best when he voted against the kiosks on April 20, 2023: “I am afraid of the risk from people who may want to challenge our sign ordinance … I really don’t see the need … Cell phones are far more convenient, you don’t have to walk two blocks to look at it, and a cell phone can do everything that these kiosks will do … There’s digital advertising, which I don’t think is necessary … it’ll bring visual clutter downtown, that I believe will cause safety problems.”

Among the 10 largest cities in the nation, San Diego is unique in its relative absence of outdoor advertising. This hard-fought legacy deserves preservation.  But elected officials are looking only at dollars promised by ad agencies, ignoring what will be lost if our urban environment is transformed into a visually blighted one like those of Los Angeles, Phoenix, and Las Vegas.

Because the downtown digital ad kiosk proposal would impose a contract of 10 years or more, it must be approved by a supermajority of the council — six of nine votes instead of just five. This means only four councilmembers must vote “no” to preserve San Diego’s historic status as a city that limits outdoor ads and preserves commercial-free scenic beauty for its residents.

Councilmembers must hear from the public if this regressive change of longstanding policy is to be defeated.  If you care about your city, let your councilmembers know by attending the meeting in person or virtually, and submitting written comment via the city’s webform hotlink on the June 6 meeting agenda. 

Absent leadership from our Mayor and with disturbingly weak guidance from the City Attorney, only public opposition stands in the way of irreversibly diminishing the look of San Diego forever.

Pamela Wilson is director of Scenic San Diego, a group that advocates for strong sign ordinances.