Mega Sign Stirs More Debate By Tamara Audi Wall Street Journal 03-20-2010

Mega Sign Stirs More Debate By Tamara Audi Wall Street Journal 03-20-2010

Mega Sign Stirs More Debate
Plan to Save 'Hollywood' Comes With a Hefty Price Tag; Tom Hanks Chips In
By Tamara Audi
The Wall Street Journal
March 20, 2010

LOS ANGELES—This city has complicated feelings about big signs.

Some people hate the signs—known as "mega-graphics"—that wrap advertisements around buildings.

But many of those same folks love the sign that spells "Hollywood" in white, 45-foot-high letters in the hills above the city. One group is trying to raise $12.5 million to keep developers from building houses nearby.

So when SkyTag Inc., a Beverly Hills-based company that owns some of the mega-graphics, offered the money needed to buy and preserve land around the Hollywood sign, it touched off debate about what price the city is willing to pay.

A Chicago investment group owns the 138-acre parcel and they could build homes around the iconic sign or sell the land to a developer. Efforts to buy the land with public funds and donations remains $3 million short, with just weeks before expiration of their purchase option.

SkyTag's offer appears to have strings attached. The company is fighting the city in court to continue displaying its multi-story mega-graphics. SkyTag's lawyer emailed several city council members and Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa with an offer to present their proposal to the city. But city council members said they were not interested.

"If it's supposed to be a trade for visual blight in one part of the city in return for protecting another, he's not interested in that kind of trade-off," said Julie Wong, a spokeswoman for city council President Eric Garcetti.

SkyTag owner Mike McNeilly said he grew up underneath the Hollywood sign. "I want to see the land around it preserved," he said. He asked that in return for his proposed gift, the city treat his mega-signs with "fairness."

He pointed out the Hollywood sign also started out as a giant advertisement. It originally read "Hollywoodland" when it was erected in 1923, and was intended to lure potential real-estate buyers. "It's a real-estate sign, and it's funny that it's become our icon," said Mr. McNeilly. "At the end of the day, we're talking about a giant sign on a hill and a giant sign on the street."

Large commercial signs have become a touchy political issue here. Last year, the city issued an all-out ban on mega-graphics, billboards and electronic billboards. Last month, the city filed a civil suit against 27 sign installers and property owners the city claimed erected signs after the ban.

Before the ban, SkyTag had sued the city over the constitutionality of its old sign ordinance, which the company alleged did not treat sign owners equally. The company won a federal court injunction that allowed some companies, including SkyTag, to keep mega-signs posted before the ban and to continue selling the ad space. The city has appealed the federal court decision.

In the past, local officials have been accused of enjoying cozy relationships with the billboard industry.

Many residents see no contradiction in embracing the city's original mega sign while rejecting its modern-day equivalent. Putting up houses around the Hollywood sign "would be sacrilege," says Greg Williams, a local historian and puppeteer. "Would you want to put a super high sky-scraper next to the Eiffel Tower? It's the same thing. This is like our Eiffel Tower."

But Mr. Williams is aghast at the modern-day signs that adorns the city. "They've gotten way out of hand," he says. "It's just tackier than anything."

The city is pairing with the Trust for Public Land, a non-profit group that helps local governments buy and preserve historic sites. The group helped buy the land around Walden Pond, outside Boston, and the school in Topeka, Kansas, at the center of the landmark Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education.

The Trust has secured $9.5 million in funding so far, including a $3.1 million gift from a group of Hollywood heavy hitters and $4 million from state and city bonds.

But the effort is about $3 million short of the $12.5 million needed to buy the land and pay legal expenses. The Trust has a year-long option to purchase the 138-acre parcel that ends April 14.

Saving the Hollywood sign has become a local cause celebre among the famous and the unknown. Tom Hanks chipped in; 12-year-old Emily Sender helped raise $1,800 at a bake sale with her berry-yogurt pies.

Tiffany & Co. Foundation President Fernanda Kellogg hiked to the top of the Cahuenga Peak, within a few feet of the famous letters. "It was awesome," she said. "You have all of Los Angeles at your feet." After the hike, Ms. Kellogg's foundation donated $1 million.

Elizabeth Taylor posted a message on a Web site run by the Trust for Public Land: "The Hollywood Sign is a universal representation of the magic of our cinematic tradition and the romance of the film and entertainment communities."

The land behind the sign was once owned by Howard Hughes, who intended to build a hilltop retreat for his girlfriend at the time, Ginger Rogers. She reportedly didn't want to live there, and the house was never built.

The land sat for decades as part of Mr. Hughes' estate, and many assumed it was part of the vast, adjacent Griffith Park.

Chicago-based Fox River Financial Resources, a private investment group, purchased the land in 2002 from the Hughes estate for $1.6 million. The land is zoned for four homes that could be built to the left of the "H" in the sign.

Fox River put the land up for sale for $22 million, but last year agreed to sell it to the Trust for $11.7 million under the option that expires next month.


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