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Miami to contemplate ads on parking pay stations, ‘mini-LED billboards’

The people who almost brought you advertisements on shade trees are at it again.

The city of Miami wants to sell commercial space on its parking pay stations and give businesses the freedom to festoon their windows with mini-LED billboards.

At a time when Metromover cars, baseball uniforms, restaurant menus and even newspaper buildings are plastered over with advertising, this might seem like a tiny turn of the screw.

Not to a group of citizen watchdogs, who have declared they will not stand by and let ads clutter the natural landscape.

“We need to stop this, and we need to stop this now,” activist Nathan Kurland told the Miami City Commission last week.

Advertising has become a high-stakes issue at Miami City Hall. That’s partly because outdoor advertising companies have become important contributors to political campaigns, and as such, a powerful lobby.

Anti-billboard groups like Scenic Miami have also raised their profile and proved their ability to derail legislation.

It isn’t clear who has the upper hand.

Last year, the commission approved an ordinance allowing blinking billboards on three city-owned facilities: the Gusman Center for the Performing Arts, the Miami Children’s Museum and the James L. Knight Center. The measure was billed as a way to create at least $430,000 a year in new revenue for the city.

Two weeks later, commissioners were supposed to consider a proposal to allow advertising on contemplated bicycle-parking stations and parking pay stations. But the legislation was so broadly written that it would have opened the door to ads on all city-owned fixtures, including telephone poles and shade trees. Citizens called the proposal “outrageous,” and it was yanked from the agenda before receiving a formal hearing.

A new proposal to allow ads on parking pay stations surfaced last week.

Like last year’s bill, the new version was loosely written, and could have been interpreted to permit ads on a variety of public surfaces.

It was enough to sound the alarm bells among community activists.

In a matter of hours, they fired off more than 3,000 emails opposing the legislation. The email blast caught the attention of top city leaders and prompted Miami Parking Authority chief Art Noriega to rewrite the bill. The new language limited the advertising to “parking meters or structures situated on property within or adjoining the public right-of-way.”

At a commission meeting last week, Noreiga said he had only intended to allow advertising on the pay stations. He showed a rendering of a sample station featuring several small ads and a walking map of the neighborhood.

“This is about more than just the advertisements,” Noreiga said. “There would be a public-service aspect, too.”

He said it was too soon to say how much revenue the ads could raise for the parking authority.

But activists like Peter Ehrlich were not satisfied.

Ehrlich argued that the legislation was still ambiguous. “You can easily interpret ‘structures’ to mean any physical building that’s owned by the parking authority,” he said.

After Noriega promised to tweak the language further, commissioners voted 3-1 to give preliminary approval to the bill.

“I think you can get this right,” Commission Chairman Marc Sarnoff said to Noriega. “No liquor advertisements. No smoking advertisements. No sex stores.”

Sarnoff clarified: “Not that I’m a moralist. I just don’t think people want to see that in the public right of way.”

In a blog post later, activist Barbara Bisno likened the commissioners’ vote to “Absurdist Theater.”

“They voted for it, even though there were no written changes on the record,” Bisno wrote, noting that Noriega never submitted the revised bill to the city clerk.

Bisno and other activists have vowed to fight the measure, but it is uncertain how they will fare. Commission Vice Chairman Willy Gort and Commissioner Michelle-Spence Jones have already approved the idea once. Commissioner Frank Carollo has said he opposes it, and Sarnoff indicated that he might not support it when it returns for a final vote.

Commissioner Francis Suarez, who was off the dais at the time of the vote, said he would have to read a final draft of the bill before forming an opinion on it.

Complicating matters, the activists now have a second proposal to fight.

On Monday, the city planning and zoning appeals board will consider a substantial rewrite of the sign code that would, among other changes, allow businesses to display electronic message signs as large as 24 square feet. The signs are currently prohibited, though some already exist, City Planning Director Francisco Garcia said.

Opponents liken the brightly lit signs to mini-LED billboards.

“The new legislation will allow LED billboards on every business in Miami with no distance requirements and no time limits,” Ehrlich said. “Imagine 10 to 20 LED billboards on every block.”

Garcia said the city is proposing strict controls over the electronic signs. They would have to be monochromatic and could not flash, and the message could not be changed more than once every six hours.

“We ourselves have reservations and are somewhat ambivalent about the sign type itself,” Garcia said. “We think that there is value in’’ allowing electronic message signs. “But if they are mismanaged, they could create the kind of visual nuisance people are concerned about.”

Garcia said the point of the rewrite is not to allow for the proliferation of signs, but to modernize the 20-year-old ordinance and make it more “user friendly.” He also noted that the new sign code would give businesses a shorter window of time to make their noncompliant ads conform to city standards.