Opinion: Will the Sunset Strip Become a Digital Billboard Ghetto or Paradise?

sunset strip billboard district
Illustration of The Belltower billboard project proposed for the Sunset Strip (Tom Wiscombe Architecture)

It could be a perfect fit—an eye-catching digital billboard, called the Belltower, on the billboard-famous Sunset Strip. But, also a perfect storm for the neighborhood community that feels under attack by a seven-story, LED-brightened digital billboard in front of their homes.

Fears that the Sunset Strip, a historic and world-famous rock and roll heaven and club culture landmark, will morph into a very different iteration by becoming a digital billboard attraction are surfacing among West Hollywood residents and property owners that are strongly opposed to this project in the city-owned Strip parking lot at 8775 Sunset Blvd. That is where the city will replace an existing billboard with a pilot digital sign and community plaza, according to city officials.

This “Belltower” project may become the poster child for how WeHo moves forward into the digital billboard future. What could easily become a digital billboard ghetto could, with some effort, become a flourishing expression of creativity to help bolster WeHo’s claim of being “the creative city

Now, at the early stages of this development for not only the Bellower project but also the longterm billboard strategy, is the time for stakeholders and WeHo residents to exert influence by speaking out. Some have already made their objections known.

The Belltower architect, La Jolla native Tom Wiscombe, who impressively won the juried design competition over top global architectural names like Zaha Hadid and Gensler, likes to compare his Belltower structure and public space to St. Mark’s Square, the central plaza and world-class civic gathering place in Venice, Italy.

His expectation of his work, that he also references to Trajan’s Column, becoming civically monumental may raise some eyebrows. It also deprives a nonjudgmental conversation about the merits of the installation that may devote up to 25% of the advertising display space to art curated by contemporary museum MOCA, which is a unique feature of the project.

Not everyone agrees with the project. Christopher Shane, a property owner near the billboard site, says “I really believe that digital billboards are a blight that do not provide any public benefit. What staff presenting the project is doing is to make it seem like it’s got an art component to it in order to sell it, to bring art and culture to the community. I disagree. it’s not art’s place to cover up a problem. Having art does not outweigh the nuisance of a digital billboard blasting at you. Art shouldn’t be used to mitigate damage.”

Others see the Belltower project as a pioneer effort of having digital billboards in WeHo, a taste of what may come early enough to allow full public and stakeholder input to the longer-term plans of how to successfully integrate new, some digital, and others upgraded, billboards onto the Sunset Strip.

That’s what interests Bianca Siegl, the City of West Hollywood’s Long Range and Mobility Planning Manager: the future of billboards on Sunset.

“The city has been looking at ways to reinvigorate the culture of billboards on Sunset, recognizing that Sunset has been defined for decades in part by its billboards that have a place in the cultural imagination of the Strip. The city wants to continue to play a role in encouraging that creativity” explains Siegl. The project website www.weho.org/sunsetsigns has details for both the policy and the pilot billboard.

Looking toward the future, Siegl explains that “The city is considering allowing for a limited number of digital billboards on Sunset. We want to embrace new technology and be on the cutting edge of creative life on the Strip. We really want to see how digital billboard technology can best support art and creative culture, and positively contribute to the one-of-a-kind experience on the Strip.”

“Our digital billboard policy will roll out over about 15 years. The proposal is to allow for about 20 digital billboards, spaced out along the Strip, over that period. Our policy is informed by lots of community and stakeholder feedback, environmental goals (new signs must be net-zero energy), a strong urban design vision, and a desire to continue to allow billboards to be a creative cultural component of the Strip” Siegl said.

Public engagement and stakeholder buy-in to the project is necessary to leaven the pros and cons of the Belltower project and help inject civic discourse into the Sunset Strip billboard district.

This need is evidenced by the discontent over the project by the WeHo Heights Neighborhood Association, chaired by Elyse Eisenberg, whose concerns include intrusion into the neighborhood, and the growth plan for billboards.

“This seven-story high, brightly lit electronic digital billboard looms straight into the windows of the hillside residents surrounding it, most less than 150 feet away. There was no real indication of this anywhere until the design was presented as a fait accompli. People are already very upset about the proposed increase of 18 more billboards to the Sunset Strip which already has 89 regular billboards in its one mile stretch. The City of West Hollywood wants to convert 20 of the new total billboards to digital-LED where now only four are allowed”, Eisenberg said.

Mid-century futurist Marshall McLuhan’s essay “The Medium is the Message” is worth recalling in the context of this issue. It speaks about how it’s the medium, not the content, that matters — which is why so much thoughtful dialog needs to happen around the Belltower project that could definitely become a paradigm. Now is the time to influence the city planners and decision-makers about what the Bellower winds up being, as a first step in an eventual digital and other billboard policy, so the Sunset Strip doesn’t devolve into a LED-lit ghetto, but perhaps something more cohesive that can be seen to have been organically home-grown by the greater community.

What You Need to Know

There will be a public meeting with the architect of the proposed Belltower project and members of the city’s Community Development staff, on Tuesday from 6:30 to 8 p.m., at the West Hollywood Library Community Meeting Room, 625 N. San Vicente Blvd.

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2 years ago

This is just another piece of digital noise, gussied up as some sort of “art” project. Whoever decided that Sunset Strip is an attraction because of its billboards? Driving around, bombarded with billboard after billboard, you tune them all out. This is all about money and when WeHo gets money, it blows it on idiotic vanity projects like the automatic parking structure at city hall. I have started to vote in every local election with the goal of voting out every last incumbent. Every one of them must go.

2 years ago

The Sunset Strip has devolved into hotels and billboards. It is no longer an attraction. What is there to see?

2 years ago

It’s not digital billboards that will turn West Hollywood into a ghetto. It’s the increasing number of homeless that defecate, urinate and litter on our streets. We have bodies laying all over the place..in our parks…in our library on our bus stop benches. This property owner is not at all worried about billboards..I’m worried about the homeless situation. And the main topic of any conversations amongst neighbors in recent months is all bout the homeless situation..never once has billboards been on anyones mind.

2 years ago

It’s disturbing to me that billboards are meant to distract drivers from driving and paying attention to the road, yet phones are made illegal while driving. These flashing electronic signs are designed to distract people from driving in this high pedestrian traffic area.