Always Look On The Bright Side Of Ike, Part 2: Fewer Billboards

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The more things change, the more they stay the same. The other day I was researching the ongoing battle between Houston’s beautifiers and the billboard industry when I came across this article in the

New York Times


Houston is a city of lovely green neighborhoods and magnificent buildings, but you wouldn't know it driving into town on either of the two main highways from Intercontinental Airport.

Visitors here must run a visual gantlet of garish billboards, tangled utility poles and power lines, used-car lots festooned with balloons and banners, fast-food shops, motels and filling stations.

The sights are the result of the anything-goes, free-enterprise spirit that built this, America's fourth-largest city. Even today, Houston is the nation's only major city without zoning laws.

But now Houston's leaders are saying they have had enough. A campaign has begun to bring down the billboards, landscape the highways and otherwise prettify the approaches to Houston. 'Quality-of-Life' Issue

The move is deeply symbolic, for it represents the latest evidence that Houston and other cities of the South and Southwest are having second thoughts about unbridled growth. In recent years, Houston has imposed controls on developers and moved to reduce the size and number of billboards.

Would it surprise anybody to learn that this article was written not this year or even this decade, but in 1987?

It certainly is no shock to Anne Culver of Scenic Houston, a non-profit group that has been battling local blight under various names since 1966. (It became known as Scenic Houston in 1991.)

While her organization doesn’t want to be seen as rejoicing in the wake of Hurricane Ike, Culver can’t help but see the storm as an, um, windfall in terms of de-uglifying Houston.

Like Gary Graves, the Smithsonian’s bird expert we interviewed yesterday in this series, Culver is calling Ike “a once-in-a-generation” event.

If you’ve ever wondered why driving down relatively new highways like 288 and the toll roads is less of an aesthetic freak-show than say, taking the North Freeway or the Eastex in from Intercontinental never ceases to be, it’s this: In 1980, City Council passed a unanimous sign ordinance resolution banning the construction of new billboards and further stipulating that billboards damaged beyond 60 percent of replacement cost were “totaled,” in Culver’s parlance, never to be rebuilt. (Since the ordinance’s passage, some 60 percent of what then totaled a staggering 10,000 billboards have bitten the dust.)

And now many more might be gone in one fell swoop.

“The rules and regulations are quite clear,” she says, and adds that billboard owners were reminded (by letter from City Hall) of these facts in the days immediately preceding the storm. “Since we haven’t had a storm like this since 1983, the city wanted to remind them of the rules,” Culver says.

And along came Ike. Culver says neither the city nor her organization knows for sure how many billboards were totaled, but that both are working hard to find the number. She says the city is extremely busy checking on the safety of private “on-premise” business signs as well as billboards, so her organization is aiding them by taking snapshots of heavily damaged billboards and sending them to the city. They have to, she says, or the billboard companies will literally sneak in and rebuild if given half the chance.

“We’ve already seen a couple of billboards rebuilt in the immediate two or three days following the storm,” she says.

She grants that perhaps the owners of the signs went through the proper channels – an arduous process requiring that the owners submit photographic evidence that the sign was less than 60 percent damaged, that they provide a detailed estimate of costs, that they are granted a permit, and so on. But perhaps they did not, in which case the rebuilt billboards will have to be torn down anyway, rebuilds be damned.

“We’re sorry there was a hurricane,” Culver says. “But if there is a silver lining, part of it is that a few unsightly billboards will come down. And it will be because of Mother Nature, not a lawsuit or some other public fight.”

Culver wants it known that hers is a pro-business organization. “We are not run on aesthetic grounds, where we are telling businesses they all have to be painted a certain shade of beige or cream,” she says. “We are a driving city, and your view is through your windshield. Blight here takes many forms. What we are against is this arms race of signage, where businesses will exploit every loophole and then throw the giant inflatable gorilla on the roof. Nobody wins in that scenario. Customers can’t tell where anything is, and the city of Houston loses its sense of place.”

John Nova Lomax

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