Houston must say “No” to digital billboards

Houston must say “No” to digital billboards

By Cooke Kelsey

How would you feel about having a billboard in your front yard? That could happen if a tiny Ohio-based company has its way. On Wednesday, City Council is scheduled to vote on granting Ike Smart City, LLC the extraordinary power to install 800 pound and 8-foot-tall digital billboards that look like giant smartphones on sidewalks all over Houston, without adjacent landowner permission. To give Ike Smart City this type of unprecedented autonomy, Council will also have to vote to amend the city’s existing sign code, a move that will eviscerate Houston’s 40-year ban on the construction of new billboards.

Yet to come this summer is a vote by City Council on another contract that will open the floodgates to even bigger and brighter Jumbotron-type digital billboards across Houston.

Together these three actions will destroy decades of work to end visual blight. Houston will be spitting on the proud legacies of scenic-minded leaders like former Houston City Council Member Eleanor Tinsley and Lady Bird Johnson, whose 1965 Highway Beautification Act helped limit billboards and outdoor advertising along our highways.

Forty years, seven mayors and a string of unsuccessful court challenges have come and gone without one new billboard going up in Houston. In fact, just the opposite has occurred. Thanks to the work of many advocates over the years and the City’s steadfast support up to this point, Houston has gone from having more than 10,000 billboards in 1980 to less than 2,000 billboards today.

You would think that Ohio company must be offering something too good to pass up in exchange for the mayor and City Council to even entertain the prospect of granting the right to litter the Houston landscape with visual blight. Well, they are not. There is a trickle of advertising revenue promised but no contractual requirement to deliver on that promise. The estimate at this point amounts to less than $1 million a year. That is nothing more than pennies when compared to the city’s massive $5.5 billion annual budget. Even during major budget crises, Houston has never considered ending its strong commitment to scenic, clutter-free streets and public places.

To add insult to injury, landowners will get zip. You read that right: there will be no compensation at all for those affected by the billboards. Just imagine the impact on local businesses struggling to regain their footing after the pandemic. Not only will they have their storefronts blocked by ugly superbright digital billboards they will also not be able to do anything about it or receive just compensation for it.

This plan threatens to do more than clutter our streets with giant touchscreens. There are also privacy concerns. Designed about a decade ago by Sidewalk Labs, a Google subsidiary, these digital billboards have the capability of gathering data from passing smartphone signals. Unclear is whether that information will be used in any manner. Google abandoned this type of technology amid public outrage, but a handful of companies have continued to peddle it to cash-strapped second-tier cities lured by the “promise” of advertising dollars and willing to sell off public spaces to become business partners with the billboard industry. Houston isn’t a second-tier city, and we shouldn’t fall prey to this gimmick.

Lastly, the ordinance locks the City into a 12-year contract with two 5-year renewals (for a total of 22 years), with no requirements for technology updates. Technology is changing daily. Digital billboards collect data and intrude on people’s privacy. Just imagine how obsolete they will be in 2043 when this contract is due to end. Nothing in this proposal warrants selling off our public spaces, much less the going into business with the billboard industry and putting intrusive digital billboards on the sidewalk in front of people’s homes and businesses.

Scenic Houston strongly opposes this plan and believes there are many others who will feel the same way once they know the facts.

If you like the view from your front porch and do not want public property handed over to the billboard industry, you have until Wednesday morning to tell your council member to stop this. We have come too far over the last 40 years to retreat. We must say no to digital billboards in Houston.

Kelsey is chair of Scenic Houston’s advocacy committee.