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Downtown San Diego Partnership, in conjunction with a Denver-based consulting firm FinWater Advisors, believe they have found a good way to revitalize downtown's North Broadway Corridor while at the same time addressing homelessness and introducing more arts and culture to the area of downtown. That solution is signs, bilboards, and art.

The Downtown Partnership along with David Ehrlich and Jeff Marston of FinWater Advisors are requesting that city councilmembers create the San Diego Arts and Entertainment District, a 65-block swath of Downtown San Diego that would become home to now-illegal illuminated billboards, off-site advertising, and installations from local artists.

They will pitch their idea to members of the City's Land Use and Housing Committee at their Wednesday meeting.

If the district is created, buildings and other structures would turn into blank canvasses.

“The [San Diego Arts and Entertainment District] will provide significant funding to address downtown homeless issues,” reads a memo from FinWater executives David Ehrlich and Jeff Marston in response to a list of concerns raised by the City Attorney’s Office, obtained through a public records request.

“Additionally, the light and activity conducted by the [San Diego Arts and Entertainment District] will create a positive environment for the homelessness initiatives to take effect.”

Ehrlich and his colleagues have been lighting up the phone lines at City Hall and in the community for more than five years asking city officials and residents to abandon San Diego's strict sign ordinance in that portion of downtown as a way to bring extra revenues and more activity to C Street and other areas.

Not only will it generate revenue but the new arts and entertainment will improve aesthetics and safety along the North Broadway Corridor from Ash Street to Broadway and from Front Street east to 10th Avenue. It will support local artists as well and pay for programs and events intended to make the North Broadway Corridor more vibrant. Last of all, the flashing lights and colorful art installations will draw people to nearby restaurants and, according to the memo, "enable landlords to increase the value of their downtown property."

Preliminary projections predict that the district can bring in as much as $500,000 for the first year. That money will be split four ways; $300,000 to FinWater for program activation, $120,000 for “homeless initiatives," $30,000 for marketing and promotions, and $50,000 to the Downtown Partnership to manage the new district.

Those are some lofty goals, especially considering that actual revenues from the Denver Theatre District are less than half of what is projected in San Diego. District tax forms show that in 2011 total revenues amounted to a little over $183,000.

But some residents say that no amount would be enough to adorn 65-blocks of downtown with digital billboards and skyscraper-sized banners.

"San Diego needs to continue to strive to be an even more beautiful city than it already is, not add garish clutter by lifting the 30-year-old ban on new billboards," says attorney Pamela Wilson.

Wilson has been one of the district's harshest critics. She is the founder of scenicsandiego.org, a part of a nationwide effort to stop cities from giving the green light to billboard owners and advertising companies.

"Because no new billboards have been allowed for 30 years San Diego is a coveted target for outdoor advertisers. Our city has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars defending our law but advertisers haven't given up trying to bust our ban. In the meantime, many who follow the industry believe it is a dying business - it can't compete with newer technologies that deliver ads to us on devices we have with us all the time."

David Ehrlich of FinWater Advisors, however, says this isn't about signs. It's about bringing art and culture to long-forgotten areas of downtown.

"This isn't about signs," says Ehrlich during a May 20 phone interview. "This is about revitalization. The North Broadway Corridor has some terrific assets and with some work can become a destination on its own. Over the years, there has been a sense that this area has been overlooked. This isn's just about signs. Signs and other advertisements are economic mechanism, nothing more."

Ehrlich has heard the objections from residents and the accusations that the new entertainment district is just a way to skirt the current sign ordinance.

"We need to be clear that this is not about all of downtown. Its about the North Broadway Corridor. It's not about La Jolla or any other community in the City. It's about C Street. We feel that light art and activity are a way to improve those area. Nobody, including us, wants to see signage everywhere."

Ehrlich and representatives from the Downtown Partnership, however, have to convince those opponents who say this is about signs and money.

"Proponents have offered no empirical data that signage promotes economic development and Scenic San Diego believes the opposite is true," says Wilson. "That is like saying increasing the number of ads on TV will get more viewers. People avoid advertising laden environments - they don't flock to them. We have ad free visual space due to the vision of civic leaders decades ago. It should not be put up for sale any more than our open space preserves could be.

"Digital billboards, wraps, rotating tri-faces and other distractions may be the last gasp of an ad medium going the way of the dinosaurs. You can put lipstick on a pig but it's still a pig. Or, as we like to say "litter on a stick."

Members of the Land Use and Housing Committee will hear the item during it's May 22 meeting at 2pm.

Go here to read the proposal:


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HonestGovernment May 20, 2013 @ 7:38 p.m.

Would the property owners within such a district have a say in whether billboards/signs/graphics are placed on their buildings or lots? I read this article, then the previous City Atty article, and didn't notice a reference to the rights of property owners to make the decision to have or not have these so-called money-making advertising elements. What am I missing?


Dorian Hargrove May 20, 2013 @ 8:40 p.m.

HG, if the district is formed then Ehrlich/Marston would serve as executive directors. Downtown Partnership would be the agency to sign off on signs. Property owners could object to sign or size of sign. They would also receive a portion of revenues. I asked if A&E District and Downtown Partnersip would have a similar contract as a MAD/PBID but Ehrlich said it was too early to tell.


HonestGovernment May 20, 2013 @ 10:53 p.m.

Thank you. I see, sort of. It's just odd that FinWater proposal and the CA's opinions never mention the property owners or their lessees.


nostalgic May 21, 2013 @ 2:15 p.m.

Didn't the Arts and Entertainment District just get overturned in Los Angeles? These districts have very strict guidelines from the state, which cities have consistently ignored. As long as the courts don't require the city to pay back everything they have collected from the property owner,then it's a gamble with no losses for the city. Why NOT play the game?


HonestGovernment May 30, 2013 @ 10:42 a.m.

On May 22, local story reports that the LuH committee put it on hold:

"Based on a memo from the City Attorney's Office, the idea has to overcome a high legal threshold,..."


Dorian Hargrove May 30, 2013 @ 11:18 a.m.

That's one interpretation of the meeting. The committee told the City Attorney and FinWater to come up with a proposal that addresses the legal issues/financial issues et cetera. The presentation was a bit early. There was/is no specific proposal just hopes of moving forward, which is what happened. Plus, Kris Michell from the Downtown Partnership was on hand in support of the district. With her support, you can pretty count on the fact that this will be back.


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