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Ads are on Neil Fraser's mind
06 October 2008

There needs to be greater control over outdoor advertising, and enforcement of City by-laws, if Johannesburg is to avoid massive, grubby, inappropriate ads.

Neil FraserI MENTIONED the northern "gateway" to Newtown last week (as you drive over the Nelson Mandela Bridge). On your right is an empty building that has been wrapped for the past five years, possibly much more.

Its current advertisement is for Castle beer. Look left and you have a wrap advertising KWV brandy and next to it, a seven-storey high Chivas Regal advertisement. The KWV ad reads: "Perfect whichever way you look at it" - well, whatever the quality of the brandy might be, "perfect" the ad certainly is not, whichever way you look at it! It is filthy and shows how badly polluted the city must be.

Flo Bird, of the Parktown and Westcliff Heritage Trust, says: "We approach the Mandela Bridge through a setting of grubby wraps which not only reveal the grubby commercial soul of the city but the disgracefully foul and polluted air. Perhaps the City should include a wash-day clause when it grants these rights. They are certainly no advertisement for Johannesburg."

Driving up Rissik Street, 222 Smit Street - directly ahead (built in 1967 as The Schlesinger Centre) - is really disfigured by a giant Amstel ad over part of its façade. Apart from other considerations, the ad totally unbalances the symmetry of the building. Then there is the technically advanced Johnny Walker ad on Life Building in Commissioner Street. Technically advanced because, while the ad looks like a wraparound it in fact isn't - the ad material only spans the section between windows, which is quite amazing given the narrow width of that space.

The building is, in fact, covered with about two dozen strips per elevation, each strip about 20 storeys high and only covering the non-window portion of the structure. The eye doesn't read it that way of course, and what we have is a 20-storey high Johnny Walker on each elevation! I actually think it is technically brilliant but wonder who in the council decided that it complies with 4 (1) The council is to have due regard to "(a) the compatibility of the proposed advertising sign with the environment and with the amenity of the immediate neighbourhood..." given that the immediate neighbourhood is the historic Indian quarter, the religions of which prohibit alcohol.

Art deco
Then there is the CNA building in Commissioner Street, one of the city's 20 art deco buildings. Neglected for many years by its previous owners, Old Mutual, it was sold two or three years back to Urban Ocean, which immediately threw up a hoarding around the building proclaiming that it would be commencing reconstruction within months. Now years, rather than months, later, huge advertising signs have been fixed to its elevations.

This is clearly against the Heritage Act, as well as our new by-laws, which specifically state that in considering an application, the council will have due regard to "whether the advertising sign will obscure an architectural feature ... of architectural, historical or heritage significance" .

There is a growing feeling among many who truly have the city at heart, that these particular developers have some sort of "deal" with the council - illegal signboards; lanes of roads closed off to their advantage for years; a substantial part of Harry Hofmeyr Parking Garage reserved for their exclusive use while the public battle to find parking; buildings like the CNA and Shakespeare House allowed to self-implode - something is clearly not right!

But it isn't only the ads that are a problem, it's also when the ad has gone and we're left with an ugly steel skeleton on which it was erected. A good example is on top of the previous Sanlam Centre, now called Marble Hall. The structure for the erection of a wraparound sign on top of the building has been there for years and years.

A by-law states (4) that if no sign has been advertised on the structure "at any time" the council may require a sign to be displayed, that this could be a "community message of the council's specification" or that advertising approval lapses. If it lapses then the council can order the removal of the structure. Again, no compliance, no enforcement!

Cape Town
I was in Cape Town on Wednesday, 1 October and was interested to see from the Cape Times newspaper that: "The City of Cape Town is waging ‘long-running battles' with landlords and advertisers who ignore signage restrictions on historic buildings in Long Street and other parts of the city."

The report also states that: "The city last year got a court interdict against signage company Tractor Outdoor preventing it from erecting a sign on the wall of the Portswood Lodge in Sea Point."

Cape Town is obviously way ahead of us; it not only has by-laws to manage the outdoor advertising industry but appears to be actively trying to enforce them.

My biggest concern here is that we have by-laws (not just for outdoor advertising) that are taken off the shelf from time to time, dusted off, updated to cover the latest technologies, negotiated through public participation that I suspect is solely with the industry representatives involved and not the people who really care about the city, then put back on the shelf and ignored by those who are responsible for enforcement.

Can someone assure us that when considering applications for advertising, someone "has due regard" to 4 c: "The size and location of a proposed advertising sign and its alignment in relation to any existing advertising sign on the same building or on the same property if such property is greater than 1000m2 in extent, and such sign's compatibility with the visual character of the area surrounding it".

Enforcement
Seriously, who monitors the rash of signs we have throughout the city - is the checking for illegal signs part of the function of the new urban management officers and enforcement groups or of the Johannesburg metropolitan police department? Whichever, nothing is being done!

I have this constant fear that we are moving towards a city with perfect regulations and by-laws none of which mean more than a row of beans because no-one enforces them.

And, I'm not against signage nor appropriate advertising.

One Citichat reader puts forward the following: "Neon signage adds life to the city's skyline. Every commercial world-class city that I have been to has a abundance of neon signage. It shows a sense of prosperity. It also gives the city two distinct vibes, one at day and the other at night.

"We need MORE big neon signs in the inner city, it should be encouraged. We should, like Times Square, increase the minimum size of neon signs. Only BIG signs should be allowed on rooftops and only one sign per building. This will stop the clutter of small signs that look like sign farming, especially around the bridge.

"I think the Carlton Centre should get a 10-storey neon signboard or light up the building in Transnet colours. Shanghai buildings light up and have changing colours as well as huge neon signs. I think it looks classy - bling is the relevant word and is very much African. Look at the chrome on cars these days in Soweto and look at the music videos.

"We don't want Joburg to look like some boring European / Nordic cities. From a fashion perspective, good big name branding is where the world is going. Why can't the city get more big brands like Coke? It shows the world that these brands are part of the city. It is like an endorsement and they add value to the name Joburg."

Well, Neal Peirce (of the Washington Post Writers Group) shows where the United States is moving and where we may well follow given the clout of the advertising industry - so read the following and weep!

All signs point to billboard blight
"There's lots of talk about the "greening" of America in this time of climate change and soaring energy costs. But don't count the billboard industry in.

"Indeed, its latest and biggest moneymakers are the big, brash, brilliant signs - LED (light-emitting diode) digital billboards - being sited rapidly on high-volume highways coast to coast.

"The flashy mega-signs are called energy efficient, but they're powerful enough to be seen a half-mile away and consume about 4 800 watts of electric power per square yard [about 0,84m2] per hour. Each costs about $450 000 [about R3,8-million]. Over 500 are up already; one industry analyst predicts there'll be 75 000 by 2010.

"Driving on congested, stop-and-go urban freeways, it's increasingly tough to ignore these monsters, each flashing a new commercial every six or eight seconds.

"‘We have the ultimate ability to withstand the whole challenge of consumer avoidance,' Paul Meyer, the chief executive of Clear Channel Outdoor, one of the media titans now dominating the billboard industry, told The Washington Post. ‘We're there 24-7. There's no mute button, no on-off switch, no changing the station.'

"What's more, because each digital board can have multiple sponsors with constantly updated messages, advertisers are proving easy to recruit. The industry is reportedly enjoying close-to-astronomic profit margins.

"Critics charge that the new signs, like the 500 000-plus old-style billboards dotting US highways coast to coast, not only blight the landscape but represent private exploitation of roadways that the public paid for.

"And increasingly, charges Kevin Fry, the president of Scenic America, tasteless outdoor advertising is endangering Americans' public realm. Drive into San Francisco and a forest of signs looms ahead, obscuring one of our most beautiful and renowned skylines. New York's great neighbourhoods are being - in Fry's words - ‘draped like a giant burrito in enormous vinyl signs'.

"There's no doubt the billboard industry, which sues to invalidate local communities' sign ordinances and targets decision-makers from local towns to state legislatures to Congress, represents one of the nation's most potent lobbies. It's effectively emasculated the 42-year-old Highway Beautification Act, passed with Lady Bird Johnson's inspiration.

"And its hunger shows no bounds. Think trees, for example. This January, the Spartanburg, SC, Men's Garden Club planted dozens of dogwoods, maples and other trees along a five-mile stretch of interstate roadway, some of it blighted by decaying and partly collapsed billboards. But the South Carolina department of transportation ordered the removal of 45 trees because they were inside the 300-foot [about 91m] highway ‘view window' the billboard lobby had urged the state to mandate.

"Indeed, at least 28 states have laws that can force cutting trees owned by the public on public land if they obscure drivers' clear view of billboards. Florida even insists on a 500- to- 1 000-foot ‘view zone'. How ‘ungreen', one wonders, can government policy get?

"Are all signs then to be condemned? No, says Fry; reasonably sized informational signs are fine. Even big electronic displays are okay where they spell the very character of a place, such as Times Square or the Las Vegas strip. The problem is the sign and billboard lobby trying to force inappropriate signs down Americans' throats, from city to country, wherever it sees a buck to be made.

"Los Angeles, for example, has been trying to get a handle on the 10 000-plus billboards, many illegally placed or sized, lining its roadways. The city council ordered an inspection and enforcement programme, plus a moratorium on new boards. Clear Channel Outdoor Inc and CBS Outdoor Inc sued to invalidate the ordinance. According to the Los Angeles Times, the city was winning successive court rounds when city attorney Rocky Delgadillo suddenly stepped in to settle with the billboard giants. He agreed to legalise scores of illegally operating billboards if the industry would agree to inspection and modest fees.

"Billboard opponents were enraged, noting Delgadillo had received $424 000 worth of billboard space to support his election, and that the firms had continued to contribute thousands more to him and some of the city council members who eventually approved the settlement.

"Fighting the billboard lobby looks like a classic David and Goliath struggle - huge resources against largely unpaid volunteers. But those volunteers say that if we're to hope for a clean, green, uncluttered America, this is one battle we can't avoid."

Cheers, Neil

Architect Africa Film Festival 2008
For three weeks each year, the Architect Africa Film Festival, arranged by the Architects' Collective, brings audiences face to face with the realities and possibilities of urban living and the built environment.

The Johannesburg week began on Friday, 3 October and ends on Thursday, 9 October, at the Cinema Nouveau, Rosebank Mall, Rosebank. The full festival programme is available on the Architects' Collective website, and tickets are available through Ster Kinekor box offices, the  cinema group's website, or Ticketline on 082 167 89.

Walking tour: Bishopskop and the Baker Loop
Saturday, 11 October
Sir Herbert Baker's work encompasses everything from the mansions to the modest cottages of the white collar workers on the mines. This tour shows a full range, starting from 1903 and going through to 1911. Learn to detect the hallmarks of the Baker firm and enjoy his dominance of the domestic scene.

The gardens are blooming and scented and we have permission to wander down the koppie of Bishopskop and peer into Bishop Furze's tiny chapel. In addition to the Eckstein Compound cottages, we will see eight Baker homes on this fairly easy stroll.

Meet Flo Bird and William Gaul in Gale Road, Westcliff, outside No 18 (between Campbell and Frere roads) where car guards have been arranged. The cost is R55 for members of the Parktown and Westcliff Heritage Trust and R75 non-members.

For more information, telephone Eira Bond on weekdays between 9am and 1pm on 011 482 3349.

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