Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Bad Billboards

Apparently L.A. has a problem with their skyline. And, no, it's not smog.

LA Weekly reported this week on 4,000 illegal billboards in the LA area, including one erected last November "in full view of the windowed offices of Los Angeles city billboard inspectors."

On top of that — or as high as that, at least — the city is letting CBS, Clear Channel, and Regency erect 877 light-emitting-diode advertising signs in a sweetheart deal.

The story goes into a lot of detail and history, probably more than the local reader might be interested in. However, in March, the Memphis City Council lifted an almost-two-year-old moratorium on construction of "regular" billboards.

At the same time, they approved a 6-month moratorium on new electronic and digital billboards and old, regular billboards getting rehabbed to digital. The plan is that the new Memphis and Shelby County sign ordinance will be rewritten by then, and it will establish guidelines for digital billboards.

This is something worth watching. Billboards are big business. The city's billboard ordinance keeps new billboards off city streets, only allowing billboards to be erected along interstates. (Obviously, the ones that already exist are grandfathered in.)

Though part of the ordinance prohibits billboard owners from replacing existing billboards on city streets, there's been a bit of legal wrangling from time to time over what "replacing" means (for instance, can a billboard company upgrade a crappy, existing billboard, thus extending its life another 20 years?) Former city council members Rickey Peete and Edmund Ford were both charged with accepting bribes over a billboard project. The billboard companies have even gone after each other from time to time.

The Weekly story echoes something consultant Eric Kelly told the council a few years ago: "When you look at sex businesses in Memphis, it's worse here than in other places," he said. "But with signage, Memphis is in the same boat as everybody else."

a new hope?

Fans of Greg Cravens, check out your local Flyer. His illustration for this week's "What They Said" is awesome. I don't want to ruin it, but let's just say he used the force.

House the homeless and save money?

As part of recent stories by Bianca Phillips and Shara Clark, activist Jacob Flowers said that Memphis' only free shelter was located at 201 Poplar. (For the uninitiated or just plain lucky, that's the jail.)

That quote didn't make the paper, but was in response to a Center City Commission initiative to halt aggressive panhandling. Because there are no free shelters, if someone needs a place to stay the night, they have to scrounge up a few bucks. And that sometimes means panhandling.

Now I don't know if I believe that downtown's problem panhandlers are always homeless, but running people from one side of town to the other might not be the best solution.

USA Today had a story yesterday about a Seattle program that houses 75 formerly homeless alcoholics. A new study finds that the program has not only improved the residents' lives but has saved the city $2 million a year.

The controversial part? The residents are allowed to continue drinking in their taxpayer-funded apartments.

The city found that "chronic public inebriates" (or CPIs, for short — and connotatively blank) were the most expensive category of homeless for the city. They spent lots of time in the ER and in jail. And the thing is, hospital beds and jail cells are expensive public services.

The article points out the program won't solve chronic homelessness, but already it's made a difference, both for the 75 people who have a place to live and the city itself.