Burlingame is moving forward with a study to explore the ramifications of installing electronic signs along Highway 101, a move that some officials say could bolster the city’s general fund with hundreds of thousands of dollars.
The City Council voted unanimously Monday night to give staff the go-ahead to begin a three-month process to evaluate installing such signs along the freeway. Mayor Michael Brownrigg noted the economic subcommittee, made up of him and Councilman Jerry Deal, did review this, but the subcommittee sensed it didn’t want to let such a policy go down the path of consuming city staff time if there wasn’t a sense this could be worthy of their time.
“We know how much needs to get done in the city and we know the limits of our revenue stream,” Brownrigg said. “These (electronic signs) will be ubiquitous. I hate to say it, but the earlier signs will be worth more.”
The signs could bring in anywhere from $100,000-$200,000 to the city and could work both as a revenue stream and to promote downtown businesses, said Community Development Director Bill Meeker. City Attorney Kathleen Kane said there are tradeoffs to adding more restrictions on what could be written on the potential billboards. More restrictions could lead to less revenue.
For the past several years, staff has been approached by purveyors of electronic media signs seeking city approval for installation along the freeway. Currently, the city has received at least one digital sign proposal — for a privately owned site — and two inquiries from businesses interested in finding a location. Sign companies have put further proposals that involve one or a combination of potential public benefits, including promotion of community events; reduced cost advertising space for local businesses, in particular automobile dealerships; and a dedicated revenue stream to the city in return for allowing installation of a digital media sign, according to a staff report.
Still some hesitation
Meanwhile, Vice Mayor Terry Nagel is more hesitant about installing such signs and said it’s important to see a picture of what the sign could potentially look like. Nagel said she doesn’t think the revenue stream would possibly pay enough for the inconvenience of the signs.
“There are signs and then there are signs,” she said. “I for one am very skeptical about putting electronic signs along the freeway; that’s not my vision for Burlingame. I am willing to look into this, but seriously need to see a sign that would not be glaring and detrimental to the overall ambiance of our city.”
Others like Deal are for the signs. He sees the money being able to be used on something else, like state parks.
Councilwoman Ann Keighran is in favor of using such signs to promote businesses and the community, but did bring up potential concerns. Since it’s been many years since this was last discussed, it’s a good idea to bring back the discussion, she said.
“To me this isn’t a revenue issue, this is messaging,” she said. “It helps business in Burlingame that brings revenue to us, does this in any way set a precedent for other areas? I do not know. It’s important for the city attorney to look at the legality of precedents set and the design. I see some signs and say that’s not what I want to see in Burlingame.”
In agreement with Keighran is Councilman Ricardo Ortiz.
“Any time we’re talking about ongoing revenue stream, I’m in favor of it,” he said. “I agree with a lot of the issues Councilwoman Keighran described — setting a precedent, limiting the number of signs and looking into what they’re going to look like, but there’s no reason not to look at it. I think we should pursue it.”
Residents appear to support signs
Burlingame residents came out to the Monday night meeting to support the signs, including Mark Carp.
“I’m 100 percent in favor of signs,” he said. “My only caveat is if you own a building along the freeway, you should be able to put a sign. Give landlords the opportunity to advertise for their current tenants.”
Another resident, Mark Hudak, said there is a potential revenue stream and it’s a pretty good one. It will also help support the town’s automobile dealerships, along with nonprofits and schools.
“I think you’ll (the council) be really pleased with the revenue stream; it will be substantial,” he said. “It’s also important to have the [community] messaging. I don’t think those two things are exclusive at all. People can find their way to either Broadway or Burlingame Avenue. … In the end, the key is you (the council) retain discretion.”
Further study of the pros and cons of electronic media signs will include staff researching how other communities in the Bay Area are responding to digital sign proposals with respect to common criteria for evaluation, policies for approving signs on public or private property, business terms for agreements and how funds are used. Conducting a web-based survey of the community to determine public opinion and/or also conduct public meetings once sufficient information has been acquired; identifying any potential city of Burlingame-owned sites that meet the location criteria for digital billboards and infrastructure and evaluation based on traffic, visibility, Caltrans requirements and proximity to planned or existing digital billboards in other communities; preparing a map that shows potential sties; identifying potential regional impacts; and conducting a legal review of any proposed models for permitting signs and/or leasing city property, according to the staff report.
Other nearby cities have considered such signs, including Belmont, Menlo Park, Palo Alto and Millbrae. Cities that currently have electronic media signs include East Palo Alto and San Carlos.
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