The St. Petersburg City Council has a chance for redemption in reducing visual blight and should embrace it. Clear Channel — the largest billboard owner in the city — is again seeking permission to install six digital billboards along the city's interstates in exchange for eliminating 80 of its traditional billboards, most of them on the city's surface streets. The council rejected a similar deal last year and should not make the same mistake again.
The first step in Clear Channel's application comes today before the mayor-appointed Development Review Commission, which is charged with deciding if the request is consistent with the city's comprehensive plan. It is expected to approve it, as the application is almost identical to one the commission approved last year but the council ultimately defeated in a 5-3 vote.
The before-and-after maps in the commission's agenda packet offer the best evidence why the City Council should embrace this deal to clean up the City Beautiful. Almost overnight some of the city's major thoroughfares — including Fourth, Martin Luther King, 34th and 49th streets, and Tyrone Boulevard and 38th Avenue N — would be dramatically cleared of billboard clutter. Within six months of its application approval, Clear Channel would have to remove up to 80 traditional billboard faces (and their 41 supporting structures) before it could erect the first of up to six digital billboard faces along I-275 and its feeders. The signs would be tightly regulated, including a minimum 10-second duration for messages, and would be available for emergency messaging and some city advertising.
Most significantly, the plan calls for the council to restrict any future construction of even traditional billboards to the interstates, ensuring the elimination of blight is permanent.
Ten months ago, opponents to the plan — including leaders from the Council of Neighborhood Associations — argued the city should just outlaw billboards with a deadline for when they must be removed. At the last minute, two council members who had preliminarily approved the deal, Wengay Newton and Herb Polson, switched positions to join Karl Nurse, Steve Kornell and Jim Kennedy on the wrong side. Polson has since left office and his successor, Charlie Gerdes, shouldn't make the same mistake.
The downside of that first rejection should be even more obvious now. In the intervening nine months, the council hasn't embraced the legally complicated concept of a billboard ban either, so the city remains as blighted as ever. This proposed deal with Clear Channel would limit digital signs and any new traditional billboards to the city's elevated roadways and simultaneously eliminate 80 billboards from neighborhoods citywide. Council members Jeff Danner, Leslie Curran and Bill Dudley recognized that was a reasonable deal the first time around. Now the rest of the council should sign on and stop letting the perfect be the enemy of the good.