Moving billboards Downtown: an ordinance that worked

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June 14, 2004 // UPDATED 2:03 pm - April 25, 2007
By: Scott Russell
Scott Russell

City plan has swapped hundreds of neighborhood ads for a few more in the urban core

Outdoor advertising companies have removed more than 217 billboards from Minneapolis neighborhoods in the past decade, swapping them for fewer but more visible locations Downtown and along freeway corridors.

The 1993 city billboard ordinance was designed to reduce the number of neighborhood "posters" -- the 12-foot-by-25-foot signs typically found on top of the mom and pop grocery stores and other commercial buildings -- in exchange for 14-foot-by-48-foot "deluxe paints," the new industry standard, in new Downtown and freeway locations, said Steve Poor, city zoning supervisor.

Poor researched the impact of a 1993 city billboard ordinance for his senior project at the University of Minnesota, writing the paper last November.

In return for hundreds fewer neighborhood signs, outdoor advertising companies added five new Downtown billboards (some with multiple faces) and 11 new freeway "paints," according to Poor's research. Three new Downtown billboards are planned.

"This is one of the ordinances that actually worked," he said.

As a city, Poor said, "we accept that there is going to be advertising, but maybe it doesn't matter so much if it is on the freeway or in Downtown because it is more of a commercial/industrial area anyways."

Most of the billboard-swapping activity took place soon after the City Council passed the new ordinance, though some still occurs, Poor said.

In 1994, the billboard industry removed 84 signs in 53 neighborhood locations, according to Poor's research of city permit records. In 1995, the industry removed another 87 signs from 53 locations. Activity slowed in 1996, but from 1997 to 2000, it removed 46 more signs from 28 locations.

History lesson

In the early 1990s, the Council faced pressure to change its billboard policy on several fronts, Poor wrote. Naegle Outdoor Advertising dominated the local market. It had the prime spots locked up. City efforts to limit billboards through spacing requirements and a Council permit system exposed the city to antitrust lawsuits by Naegle competitors.

Further, neighborhood residents wanted fewer billboards near their homes, in part because of the number of tobacco and liquor ads they then displayed, he said. (Billboards advertising tobacco were later prohibited by Minnesota's 1998 settlement with cigarette manufacturers.)

The city embraced market forces to shift billboard locations, Poor said. The city's ordinance worked because some of the neighborhood billboard locations had lost value, he said.

Minneapolis' population was falling, meaning fewer people saw the neighborhood billboards. (The 2000 Census showed the city gaining population for the first time in more than 50 years.) Further, traditional billboard locations reflected streetcar patterns and increasingly suburban commuters used the freeways.

The Minneapolis ordinance allowed the outdoor advertisers to bank credits for removing neighborhood billboards, Poor said. For every two square feet the company removed, it got to build one square foot of new billboard in Downtown or freeway "opportunity zones."

For example, if a company removed four of the smaller 300-square-foot "posters," a total of 1,200 square feet, it would get 600 square feet of billboard credits -- almost enough for a larger "paint," which measures 672 square feet.

The ordinance also allows billboard companies to reduce the city spacing requirement between billboards, set at 1,000 feet, Poor said. Companies could buy spacing down to as close as one billboard every 500 feet.

Lee Ann Muller, president and general manager of Clear Channel Outdoor/Twin Cities, called the 1993 ordinance good public policy.

Clear Channel bought Universal in 1998, which had bought Naegle in 1996. Clear Channel now has 500 billboards in Minneapolis, she said. It is still looking for sites in Downtown and along the freeway, and plans to add two new boards along South Washington Avenue between Downtown and I-35W soon.

"I think the city would feel it [the ordinance] has been very effective for accomplishing their goals. I know from our company's perspective, the same would be true," she said.

Highway less beautiful

For decades, the city's freeway corridors had few billboards. Minneapolis embraced the ideals of the 1965 Highway Beautification Act and had kept billboards at least 300 feet from freeways.

When the city passed the 1993 ordinance allowing outdoor advertisers to build signs along freeways, it "walked away from the Highway Beautification Act in an urban context," Poor said.

Billboard companies removed most of their signs from North Minneapolis, Poor said. The billboards, often featuring public service announcements or discount cigarette ads, had little value.

Southwest Minneapolis did not benefit from the ordinance as much as other parts of town, he said. It did not have as many billboards to begin with. The area's affluent demographics made its existing spots valuable, such as locations at West 43rd Street and Upton Avenue or West 54th Street and Lyndale Avenue South.

The industry cashed in credits in Downtown areas such as South 6th Street and Portland Avenue, places where drivers got onto the freeways or major thoroughfares, Poor said. A company may have had side-by-side, 300-square-foot billboards and cashed in credits to replace them with two new big ones.

Ironically, as billboards have migrated Downtown, so have more than 4,000 new residents since 1990 -- some from the very neighborhoods that were able to get rid of billboards thanks to the 1993 ordinance.

But at least according to a few residents, the ads are easier to take in Downtown's commercial cacophony.

Downtown East resident Terry Peterson said he never noticed them.

A resident, who gave his name only as Jerry, said he has lived in Downtown East for five years and considers billboards as "part of the urban landscape."

"It's part of living Downtown," he said. "It doesn't mean I want to see more."

Editor's note: the owners of Skyway News receive rent from an existing billboard atop our 1115 Hennepin Ave. S. building.