A new ordinance sponsored by Metro Council President Jim King with Council Members Henderson, Blackwell, and Engel proposes a permitting process and fee for the ubiquitous billboard benches that appear along streets across Louisville. The city has been fighting these bench ads for years now, each time threatened with lawsuits from the advertising companies who pull in hundreds of thousands of dollars a year.
The proposal seeks to impose a $50 annual administrative fee for privately placed street furniture in the public right of way from bike racks to trash cans to billboard benches. A permit would issued by the Department of Public Works taking into account the exact placement of each item to ensure safety. If a bench is illegally placed, the city could remove it, issue a $10 fine recurring at $8 a day.
Additional oversight on these rather ugly intrusions into public space should be welcome. These benches–and there are hundreds of them–can generate between $1,000 and $6,500 per year, with none of the profits going to Metro Louisville. Profits often are taken out of state. (See photos of about 150 billboard benches in Louisville compiled by Jim King’s office, warning: large PDF.) While these billboard benches are certainly not attractive or even comfortable, they do often provide the only street furniture available in suburban settings and at bus stops, and when you’re waiting 15 or more minutes for a bus, it’s nice to have a place to sit. So how do we regulate them to ensure better design, placement, and safety?
But it seems this ordinance might not even be needed as Public works already has a protocol for permitting objects in public space clearly posted on its web site. A PDF on the rules and regulations governing benches in the public right of way require a permit with a $100 fee to be renewed on an annual basis. The process also caps the number of bench permits that can be issued each year at 100, whether it’s a decorative bench placed by a local business or a billboard bench by an out of town company. Further, the rules cover design, quality, and maintenance of the bench to ensure the most aesthetically pleasing outcome and a permit number must be displayed on the bench. If a bench is illegally placed without a permit, the city can remove the obstruction.
But instead of grouping these billboard benches in with all other street furniture, can we use their money-generating nature to help improve our public realm? Can we have a separate permit classification for street furniture whose primary purpose is to generate money from advertising? With each of the hundreds of benches generating thousands of dollars a year, is a $50 fee (half of what the fee is now) enough to ask from these out-of-state advertising companies like Blue Line Media, CBS Outdoor, and others?
In LA, the city contracted with a private bench company to install up to 6,000 billboard benches at bus stops over ten years, generating income for the city. These benches have large ads on them but are made of more durable metal with what appears to be marginally more comfortable design. (More info.)
Louisville can also use these billboard benches for its own advantage. Instead of creating a duplicate permitting process for benches in the public right of way that appears weaker than the existing process, let’s create one specifically designed for billboard benches that dictates high quality, comfortable design with durable materials and charge fees that reflect the revenue-generating nature of these devices. This ordinance could go much further toward improving public space around transit stops in Louisville.
Council President King’s concept was approved by the Metro Council Public Works, Bridges, and Transportation Committee and now moves on to the full Metro Council on Thursday.