Scenic History

Scenic History

Scenic Houston’s Roots are Deep

Born in a local advocacy effort to battle the unregulated proliferation of billboards in our city, in 1966, concerned Houstonians led by architect Ralph Anderson and attorney Carroll Shaddock formed the non-profit group Billboards Limited to fight billboard blight.

Billboards Limited fought to establish, for the first time ever, a City of Houston sign ordinance as a means to create standards and regulations for billboards. The billboard industry fought any kind of regulation and the elected leaders at that time were ineffective in establishing effective standards.

By 1980, Houston was home to over 10,000 billboards, and was known in the press as the “Billboard Capital of the World.”

Thanks to the efforts of Billboards Limited and a new generation of community leaders, that same year, Houston City Council unanimously passed an ordinance banning new billboard construction in the city. Once new billboard construction was stopped, then redevelopment, attrition, and continuing anti-billboard advocacy began to gain traction. As a direct result of this ordinance, billboard inventory was reduced from 10,000+ billboards in 1980 to 1,309 in 2019.  This landmark ordinance has had a significant impact on the visual character of Houston’s local streets and neighborhoods.  Today, the remainder of Houston’s billboard inventory is situated mostly along freeway corridors where these signs are protected from amortization and removal under a 1980s federal law known, ironically, as the Highway Beautification Act

This significant turning point in the local campaign for signage standards sparked a desire for statewide advocacy to protect the appearance and quality of life of roads and streets statewide. As a result, in 1984, Billboards Limited was reorganized as The Lone Star Roadside Council, a state-wide non-profit organization. A final name change occurred in 1991 with the establishment of Scenic Texas, Inc. as the statewide 501(c)(3) entity, with Scenic Houston as its largest and most active local chapter. Scenic Texas and Scenic Houston are affiliates of Scenic America.

1980 | Ban on New Billboards: City of Houston Ordinance

By 1980, Houston was home to over 10,000 billboards, and was known in the press as the “Billboard Capital of the World.” Thanks to the efforts of Billboards Limited and a new generation of community leaders, that same year, Houston City Council unanimously passed an ordinance banning new billboard construction in the city. Once new billboard construction was stopped, then redevelopment, attrition, and continuing anti-billboard advocacy began to gain traction.

Houston was known as the “Billboard Capital of the World.”

Scenic Houston helped the city establish Scenic Districts and rights-of-way that have elevated signage standards throughout these nineteen areas.

1980 | Scenic Right-of-Way and Districts

In 1980, the City of Houston established its first scenic district. Scenic districts and rights-of-way are travel way corridors with elevate standards for on-premises and off-premises signage.  Currently the city of Houston has established nineteen scenic districts and/or rights-of-way.

1999 | Adoption of Texas Legislation: The Green Ribbon Program

Scenic Houston was instrumental in securing the adoption of Texas legislation that requires a portion of a highway construction project’s budget be spent on landscaping. Because this legislation only applies to new projects, Scenic Houston also successfully pushed for federal funds to landscape Houston’s already-completed highways. Combined, these plantings have produced 820 acres of “green ribbon corridors” throughout the Houston area. TxDOT has now planted more than one million trees. Prior to the 1999 initiation of the program, TxDOT’s total Houston-area tree plantings numbered 18,868, an increase of 5,299%!

The Green Ribbon Program is funded through biannual state appropriations. Scenic Houston and Scenic Texas work each legislative session to ensure that funding is maintained.

More than 800 billboards have been removed as a result of the Clear Channel Settlement and zero have been relocated.

2007 | REDUCING HOUSTON’S BILLBOARD INVENTORY BY 20% – CLEAR CHANNEL AGREEMENT

Without the efforts of Scenic Houston, Houston City Council would have approved a settlement agreement in December 2007 to allow 466 billboards to be relocated twice over a 20 year period to new sites all over our City, including major thoroughfares which are now billboard-free thanks to redevelopment since the City’s no-new-billboards ordinance was adopted in 1980. When Scenic Houston and many citizen stakeholders voiced objections to the settlement terms, Scenic Houston was invited to serve as a resource to the Mayor as his team re-worked the agreement. Scenic Houston representatives suggested the method of economic analysis that served as the basis for the negotiations and participated in the negotiating process along with City personnel. As a result, in April 2008, the City of Houston and Clear Channel Outdoor, Inc. signed a compromise and settlement agreement intended to resolve disputes and controversies, and to avoid any future litigation over the Houston Sign Code and its application to Clear Channel’s inventory in Houston and its extra-territorial jurisdiction. More than 800 billboards have been removed as a result of the settlement and none is being relocated.

2007 | First Capital Project: Texas Avenue

As the former home of the Capital of the Republic of Texas in the 1800’s, Texas Avenue is one of Houston’s most historic roadways. The Rice Hotel, Union Station and Wortham Theatre Center all call Texas Avenue their home. Today it is still one of Houston’s most prominent thoroughfares.

In 2000, Scenic Houston partnered with downtown leaders on a historical scenic project to enhance Texas Avenue.  The project included the installation of 60 unique light streetlamp, the installation of historical markers and the planting of native trees along both sides of the Avenue, from the Hobby Center to Hamilton Street at Minute Maid Park. It also included installation of an additional 38 historical markers from Main Street to Hamilton Street, on the North side of US 59. Scenic Houston also produced a book and a hand-held walking tour guide that was distributed to downtown venues, area schools and libraries.

After its completion the largest thoroughfare in downtown Houston became a pedestrian haven for enjoying the majestic oaks while walking along and reading the fascinating history of Houston and this remarkable Avenue

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After its completion the largest thoroughfare in downtown Houston became a pedestrian haven.

Scenic Houston helped ensure the ban of digital billboards in Houston.

2008 | Billboard Ban – No Digital Billboards

In 2008, Houston City Council voted with no opposition to reconfirm and restate a total ban on off-premises billboards. This action reaffirmed and further strengthened the existing 1980 ban by explicitly stating that converting any existing billboard to digital would violate the city’s no-new-billboards law. Scenic Houston was responsible for encouraging the Council to reaffirm the law. Our successful efforts to create awareness about the blight caused by billboards were evidenced by how easily this ordinance was adopted.

2008 | Eliminating Attention-getting Devices

With policy analysis and research data developed by Scenic Houston as a basis, in 2008, Houston City Council adopted an ordinance to prohibit the commercial use of “attention-getting devices,” or AGDs. These include the giant, cartoonish, inflatables seen atop businesses, as well as streamers, pennants, flags, wind devices and the like. Eliminating AGDs cleans up very real visual blight along our freeways and major thoroughfares, reduces dangerous driver distraction, eliminates safety hazards along the right-of-way, enables a clearer and more effective view of a business’s permanent signage and saves the business owner the expense of purchasing the AGDs. And, in our unzoned City where residential areas are not separated from retail and commercial centers, this cleanup had a very real and immediate impact on our neighborhoods.

Scenic Houston helped ensure the ban of attention getting devices in Houston.

Houston Sign Code now provides for fewer, smaller and less intrusive on-premises signage throughout the city.

2009 | Strong Improvements to the Houston Sign Code

Thanks to Scenic Houston’s role as a member of a 2009 Mayor’s On-Premises Sign Task Force, today’s Houston Sign Code now provides for fewer, smaller and less intrusive on-premises signage throughout the city. Task Force recommendations that were adopted by City Council included size and height reductions for signs along major thoroughfares and freeways; creation of a new most-restrictive category of signs for residential areas; restrictions on wall, projecting and roof signs; a new requirement that window signs have a permit; and limitations on the number, size and brightness of electronic changeable message signs.  All these changes strengthened the existing sign code, which had not been revised since 1992.

2013 | Scenic Houston Streetscape Resource Guide Published

Understanding that any stakeholder interested in Houston streetscape planning and development could benefit from a definitive resource guide — and finding none — In 2013, Scenic Houston produced the Streetscape Resource Guide. The Guide is a practical, photo-rich companion to standard streetscape regulations and draws attention to very specific examples where dynamic streetscapes can result from thoughtful planning, better design and full implementation. It illustrates that superior outcomes can result as easily as mediocre ones. This practical tool benefits all stakeholder by equipping them with a photo guide to street-building standards; it “translates” written regulations into the illustrated end product, allowing every stakeholder- from construction worker to site inspector to developer to civic association to elected official- to better advocate for streetscapes that are assets to their unique communities.

Scenic Houston publishes first Streetscape Resource Guide.

Scenic Houston’s advice and counsel served as the basis for three separate agreements between the City and major billboard companies.

2014-2017 | Billboard Takedowns

Because the City of Houston was unable to negotiate the removal of dozens of “past their due date” amortized billboards, the City asked Scenic Houston to assist in updating and modernizing the city’s billboard database and advise on the City’s strategy. Scenic Houston’s advice and counsel served as the basis for three separate agreements between the City and major billboard companies to permanently remove 66 billboards across the City over a 30-month period.

2015-2017 | Saving the Texas Highway Beautification Act

An unexpected 2016 court ruling gutting the Texas Highway Beautification Act could have resulted in a loss of $350 million in federal highway funding and a loss of TxDOT’s ability to regulate billboards if Scenic Houston had not weighed in.  In 2016, Scenic Houston organized amicus legal briefs filed with the Austin Third Court of Appeals seeking a judicial cure and in 2017 crafted legislation seeking a statutory cure to the issue, which had to do with balancing first amendment free speech issues with the ability to issue billboard permits.  The bill was passed by the Texas Legislature in May and signed by Governor Abbott in June 2017.  The Texas Highway Beautification Act was reinstated as a pillar that supports the visual character of Texas roadways and urban entryway corridors.

In 2016, Scenic Houston organized amicus legal briefs filed with the Austin Third Court of Appeals.

The goal of the project was to help increase awareness of Houston’s local culture and history.

2017 I‐69 Bridges Project

In 2017, Scenic Houston partnered with the Houston First Corporation to visually enhance the bridges crossing over I-69 between Tuam and Leeland. The goal of the project was to help increase awareness of Houston’s local culture and history and to foster a sense of pride and connection amongst Houstonians. The imagery placed on the bridges was selected from local artist Geoff Winningham’s book and exhibition, “In the eyes of Our Children:  Houston, an American City”.

2018 | Second Capital Project: The Broadway/Hobby Corridor Redevelopment Project

In 2017 Scenic Houston completed streetscape enhancements along the Broadway Street airport corridor connecting William P. Hobby Airport to I-45 Gulf Freeway. Broadway Street had been rebuilt by the City of Houston, but with no budget for streetscape enhancements. Scenic Houston, not wanting to miss an opportunity to create a high-impact, beautifully landscaped gateway, secured the necessary $6.2 million in funding to provide infrastructure and aesthetic improvements to the corridor.

Scenic Houston led the design process and funding efforts for the beautification of the City’s Broadway Street Rebuild.

Version 2.0 expands to address transit stops/stations, bicycle facilities, trail to street connections, maintenance, and sustainability/resiliency.

2018 | Streetscape Resource Guide 2.0 Published

In 2018, Scenic Houston published version 2.0 of its Streetscape Resource Guide. The revised version of the Guide includes all elements of the original publication as well as sections addressing transit stops/stations, bicycle facilities, trail to street connections, maintenance, and sustainability/resiliency. Version 2.0 is a continues to serve as a practical tool benefits all stakeholder by equipping them with a photo guide to street-building standards.

2020 | Establishment of the Airport Corridor District: City of Houston Ordinance

Houston can leave a bad first impression for first-time visitors. We at Scenic Houston feel strongly that it doesn’t have to be that way. Why can’t our entryways into the city from our airports look as scenic as some of our other districts? That is why Scenic Houston worked closely with Mayor Sylvester Turner’s Administration, the City of Houston Legal Department and the City of Houston Sign Administration to write and pass an Airport Corridor District Ordinance for the I-45, I-69 and Hardy Toll Road alignment connecting all three Houston airports. This Airport Corridor District designation aims to help spur removal of clutter and modernize and streamline the look of these entryway corridors. Over time, unused signs, outdated billboards and additional clutter will be removed and Houston’s bad first-time impression will be a thing of the past.

Scenic Houston advocated for more visually appealing airport corridors to help Houston’s first impression.