The company that owns most of the billboards in San Antonio has agreed to remove nearly 300 billboards and posters in exchange for a new rule that would allow two-sided digital signs.
“This proposal will lead to the [single largest] reduction in billboards in the city’s history,” Mayor Ron Nirenberg said in February at a press conference announcing the plan. Roughly one quarter of the total signs – and with it visual clutter – will be eliminated, he said.
Update: City Council approved the new ordinance on Thursday, Sept. 12.
Council was slated to vote on the ordinance and deal with Clear Channel Outdoor in April, following a two-month period in which the public and stakeholders could provide feedback per the City’s new public participation guidelines. A community survey was to be conducted via the City’s SASpeakUp website. Which large billboards will be taken down will depend on that input, Nirenberg said in February, but at least one will be removed from a scenic or historic corridor.
“This is the best opportunity the City has to remove a significant amount of signs and perhaps one of the only opportunities we’ll have to make that happen,” he said.
Clear Channel wants to start installing digital billboard faces on the back side of existing billboards, but the City code prevented two-sided signage. Now that the rule has been approved, Clear Channel will install up to 13 digital billboards on the back of existing billboards, said Tim Anderson, vice president of Clear Channel Outdoor, in February. That means the company would not be building any new structures.
Digital billboards allow advertisers to change messages more often and tailor them – for instance, to morning and afternoon commuters, Anderson said. Clear Channel owns more than 90 percent of off-premise signs (those that are not advertising for the use or business at the location of the sign).
“Inventory [of off-premise signs] can’t increase,” Anderson said, because of City code. For every one square foot of digital display added, Clear Channel will remove four feet of traditional display space.
Clear Channel will have 18 months to remove all of its 265 signs that are 100 square feet or less – called “junior posters” – according to the draft agreement, in addition to 11 large bulletins and 49 other structures.
“Initially, it’s quite a hit [financially],” Anderson said. Clear Channel will pay to remove the signs and, thus, will no longer be able to sell advertisements for them. But over time, he added, the investment in digital signs will pay off.
The City has long held the policy to use incentives to reduce clutter, Nirenberg said. For every sign that goes up, two must come down.
Clear Channel Outdoor Holdings Inc., which is headquartered in New York but has had a local office for decades, split from iHeartMedia in December 2018 after the latter filed for bankruptcy.
When Clear Channel first installed 12 digital billboards 10 years ago, Anderson said, it took down 83 signs.
The ordinance will not impact on-premise signs that businesses use to advertise their services and products on-site.
“As part of this input process we expect to see a lot of comments about the on-premise signs and the sign code ordinance in general,” Nirenberg said. “The City is currently taking input and going through a sign code update process that will begin to unfold in 2020.”
The sign code was last updated in 2017 to mitigate illegal signs, regulate digital brightness, increase the buffer between residences and commercial signs, and establish urban corridor requirements.