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New digital billboards may be coming to San Jose freeways — whether residents like it or not

In what could mark the end of a 36-year-old ban on new billboards across San Jose, new LED-illuminated billboards may soon be built along Highway 101 despite staunch opposition by residents.

San Jose quietly unveiled plans this week to enter a lease agreement with the media company Clear Channel, allowing them to build two new electronic billboards — measuring 1,000 square feet in size — along Highway 101 on Mineta San Jose International Airport property.

The release of the draft proposal comes just four months after a city survey revealed that nearly 93% of San Jose residents opposed allowing new digital billboards to be built along freeways in the city.

Although the project is still under review and a public hearing has yet to be held, San Jose Airport Director John Aitken gave the project his initial blessing in February 2020 — more than 17 months ago, according to airport spokesperson Demetria Machado.

Still, the plan must go through a full review process, with the San Jose City Council making the final decision in the fall on whether to approve the project. The city’s Airports Commission will host the first public presentation on the proposal at its next meeting on August 9.

San Jose residents who have spent more than a year battling the city’s efforts to dismantle the decades-long ban on new billboards said that they felt blindsided by this new development.

“What we can say is that the City seems intent on ignoring the public and satisfying the billboard lobbyists,” said Les Levitt, a San Jose resident and co-founder of the grassroots organization No Digital Billboards in San Jose.

Councilmember David Cohen, who also serves as the council liaison for the Airport Commission, said in response to a reporter’s questions that he had yet seen the details of the project.

“I think I need to hear the staff report before I can inform opinions regarding this project,” he said in a text. “I don’t have enough perspective at this point.”

San Jose has prohibited the construction of new billboards on city-owned land since 1972 and a citywide ban has been in place since 1985. Proponents of the ban argue that the signs create visual blight, distract drivers and negatively affect the environment, surrounding wildlife, and residents’ overall quality of life.

But in response to lobbying efforts from billboard companies, San Jose leaders have spent the last half-decade working to unravel the ban and add new flashy outdoor signage across the city. Supporters say it will bring additional revenue and add a sense of vibrancy to the city.

In September 2018, the council voted to allow up to 22 new digital signs and billboards on 17 city-owned sites. That plan included placing new digital signs on a handful of city-owned downtown buildings like the Hammer Theatre, the Center for Performing Arts and parking garages and adding new digital billboards on up to eight freeway-facing public properties, including at the airport.

San Jose gathered bids from billboard companies more than a year ago to build the new building-mounted signs, as well as two freeway-facing billboards on city-owned properties outside of the airport, but officials have not yet awarded any contracts.

San Jose downtown director Blage Zelalich said the matter took a backseat during the pandemic. She hopes to bring recommended contracts to the city council for approval by the end of 2021.

A separate proposal by the city to allow private property owners to build up to 75 billboards on freeway-facing sites along Highway 87, Interstate 280 and Interstate 880 was dropped earlier this year after intense public scrutiny. Officials at that time opted to continue moving forward with their plans for new signs on public properties.

Meanwhile, the city has maintained a contract with Clear Channel for advertising signs within terminals and on bus stops at the airport since 2007. This latest proposal to add billboards on airport property would be included in that same contract, according to Machado, the airport spokesperson, which is why the city did not get any other bids for the project.

Machado added in an email that the locations for the new signs were “carefully selected to limit the impact to neighboring businesses and airport operations.”

The airport expects to generate approximately $600,000 annually from the two billboards. At least 10% of the advertising space would be provided free to the airport to display information about airport operations and services to drivers passing by.

Clear Channel also would be required to take down two dilapidated, paper billboards anywhere in California — but not necessarily in San Jose — for each digital billboard that they erect, according to Machado.

This is a notable deviation from one of the main benefits San Jose leaders touted when advocating for new digital billboards. At the time, city officials said they would require companies to take down at least four paper billboards within San Jose for each freeway-facing digital sign they put up — a move that would reduce blight in the city.

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