Thank goodness the majority of the St. Petersburg City Council preserved that pristine vista along Interstate I-275 as it snakes through the city. No matter that the council members ensured the continued blight of dozens of billboards along the city's major surface roads, from Fourth Street to Tyrone Boulevard. The interstate, that elevated, unpopulated thread of concrete, has been saved.
Succumbing to public pressure from a handful of activists, the council has done a huge disservice to the city's long-term aesthetics. It voted 5-3 this month to reject what would have been the first of two digital billboard deals that were far better than any other local government in Tampa Bay had negotiated. The initial deal would have allowed Clear Channel Outdoor to erect six digital billboards along I-275 and its feeders in exchange for taking down 80 traditional billboards citywide — most of them on surface roads.
Opponents — namely the misguided Council of Neighborhood Associations — contended the deal wasn't that sweet. Some billboards that would be removed are far smaller than the digital billboards that would be erected, they argued. They sought a wholesale moratorium on billboards that could have taken decades to accomplish the same visual benefits on the city's surface roads as the deal would have in two years.
After three years of negotiation, the rejection of the deal was a surprise. Council members Herb Polson and Wengay Newton, who had voted just weeks earlier to move the issue forward, switched sides to join naysayers Jim Kennedy, Steve Kornell and Karl Nurse in killing the plan. Perhaps Newton, facing a challenge in November from a candidate opposed to digital billboards, was hedging his bet. How unfortunate for good public policy.
The fact is, the city would have seen 6.4 times as much square footage of traditional billboards removed in exchange for each square foot of digital billboard put up along the soulless I-275 corridor and its feeders. Now the only hope, as the city embarks on a review of its sign ordinance next month, is that cooler heads will ultimately prevail.
The threat remains that if St. Petersburg doesn't make a decision on digital billboards, the industry will push the state Legislature to establish rules along major roadways — a not unprecedented event in Florida. Council members Leslie Curran, Jeff Danner and Bill Dudley understood that. It's too bad their colleagues' actions do more to protect that marvelous view on I-275 than on St. Petersburg's city streets.