The Biscayne Times

Jul 08th
Billboard Jungle PDF Print E-mail
Written by Erik Bojnansky -- BT Senior Writer, Photos by Silvia Ros   
August 2013

CoverStory_1Outdoor advertising is Miami’s crack cocaine: The money gets you high, but one day it’ll kill you

One of the nation’s top experts on outdoor advertising says Miami has “America’s most illegal billboard.” Guess where it’s located.

One of the nation’s top experts on outdoor advertising says Miami has “America’s most illegal billboard.” Guess where it’s located.

OCoverStory_1n May 20, Bacardi Limited, the family-owned, Coral Gables-based spirits company that creates and distributes Bacardi rum worldwide, celebrated Cuban Independence Day by launching a massive advertising campaign. The company produced short Internet movies celebrating the exploits of Emilio Bacardi, son of Bacardi rum founder Don Facundo Bacardi Masso, who participated in Cuba’s independence movement against Spain in the late 19th Century.

Bacardi also ran a television commercial set in U.S.-occupied Cuba in the year 1900, the aftermath of the Spanish-American War, where a sexy female independence fighter introduces a handsome but awkward American soldier to the Cuban concept of rum and Coke. “Cuba Libre!” she shouts before walking away.

You don’t need to watch television to be infected with the urge to drink rum. Advertisements with Bacardi bottles and the bat-winged Bacardi symbol proclaiming “Cuba Libre!” or “Vivimos!” are plastered on several buildings that can be seen from Interstate 95 or I-395 in downtown Miami -- at least as of last month.

But it isn’t just Bacardi ads. Drive along the interstate or state expressways within Miami’s city limits, or various routes in Brickell, downtown, Park West, Omni, the Design District, or Wynwood, and you’ll see a whole host of advertisements strapped to high-rise buildings or hoisted on tall billboards.

Alcoholic beverages, new automobiles, car insurance, plastic surgery, STD testing, Internet service, fast-food restaurants, colored water, supermarkets, the next Smurf movie, private schools, hospitals -- all these products can be found in the Miami skyline, or on some stretches of the highway, instead of the Miami skyline.

There are even light-emitting diode (LED) billboards, run by Clear Channel Outdoor, that flash ads, sometimes animated, for supermarkets, the beaches of Palm Beach County, and the latest shows at the Arsht Center.

If those commercial messages don’t suit your fancy, visit the American Airlines Arena and watch the “MiamiMediaMesh,” a 3375-square-foot video screen above the facility’s front entrance. Not only does the display promote the Miami Heat and upcoming concerts, but also watches, banks, insurance, and other things not sold at the arena.

Or gaze at the façade of the 366-foot-tall InterContinental Miami Hotel at night. Amid light-produced images of a nimble dancing woman or floating bubbles, you can catch a commercial for Toro Toro, a restaurant and club inside the hotel. The lady, the bubbles, and the ad can be seen clearly as far away as South Beach.


Or take a drive up Biscayne Boulevard. Once you get beyond the crush of “murals” adorning the sides of condos, you won’t see as many large advertisements, though notable exceptions include aging aging billboard structures by Soyka Restaurant, a few more farther north in pockets of unincorporated Miami-Dade, and five scattered around Aventura. You can also see advertisements on flat, illuminated signs beside bus benches or affixed to phone booths in Omni, Edgewater, and the MiMo Biscayne Historic District.

And that’s just the beginning.

The Gusman Center for the Performing Arts, the Miami Children’s Museum, and the James L. Knight Center -- three downtown-area institutions -- now have permission to set up 750-square-foot electronic billboards to radiate commercial advertisements. In exchange, Miami will receive up to $1 million per year in fees and revenue sharing.

In 2010, the Miami City Commission approved developer Mark Siffin’s proposal to build a pair of LED “media towers” 350 and 250 feet high on top of a 100-foot-tall parking garage that would continuously broadcast advertisements. Siffin, in turn, promised to pay the city $1.5 million annually.

The media towers were never built because Siffin failed to close on his $190 million deal with Miami Herald owner McClatchy to buy ten acres of land. But as far as the City of Miami is concerned, it’s still legal to build media towers as tall as 500 feet in the Omni redevelopment district, if it’s approved by the city commission and a minimum permit of $1 million is paid. Media towers can also be built in the Southeast Overtown/Park West redevelopment district, although city regulations governing their design are vague.

Lucia Dougherty, a land-use attorney and lobbyist who represents Van Wagner, a company that operates the most mural ads and bus-bench signs in Miami, says outdoor advertisements don’t just provide lots of cash for the industry. They’re also lucrative for private property owners.

“It can be up to $500,000 a year, depending on the size and location,” Dougherty says. “They did good things for the landlords when the recession hit. Some wouldn’t have survived without them.”


Financial advantages aside, historian Arva Moore Parks, a lifelong Miami resident, can hardly stand the ad canopy she sees when she visits downtown or travels to and from Miami Beach. “It’s terrible,” she says. “We finally get some decent architecture, and there’s an iPad advertisement on the side of it.”

Striving to fight the spread of these outdoor advertisements are groups like Scenic Miami and Citizens for a Scenic Florida. So far their efforts have succeeded in delaying a proposed ordinance that would have allowed street-level electronic signs to advertise virtually anything, anywhere.

In addition, they have delayed a much more sweeping -- and controversial -- proposal that could lead to even more outdoor advertisements to clutter Miami’s visual landscape.

Until a few weeks ago, the city was poised to enter into an agreement with the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) and the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) that would have allowed Miami to continue ignoring state laws requiring that outdoor advertisements within 600 feet of the interstate (I-95, I-395, I-195) and state-maintained highways (SR 836, SR 112) stay at least 1000 feet away from each other and that their size not exceed 1000 square feet.

The agreement would bless the city’s currently illegal practice of allowing outdoor advertisements to be within 300 feet of each other (a mere 150 feet in the Park West Entertainment District), and of approving murals on buildings as large as 10,000 square feet. For signing off on the deal, FDOT would receive half of the city’s permit fees from murals.


Peter Ehrlich, vice president of Scenic Miami, says visual pollution in the City of Miami is overwhelming. “Outdoor advertising is in your face. It’s direct. It’s obnoxious,” he asserts. “South Florida depends on tourism and our scenic beauty to attract residents and tourists. No tourists want to visit South Florida to see billboards. No residents are lobbying elected officials to demand more outdoor advertising.”

Barbara Bisno, president of Scenic Miami and a former federal prosecutor, says that, besides being obnoxious, many outdoor advertisements are unsafe for drivers, harm property values, and in the case of LED billboards, are flat-out illegal. “Many, many of the billboards -- free-standing and on buildings -- are illegal under county, state, and federal law and agreements,” she declares. “LED billboards are particularly noxious to the community as they’re distracting to drivers, block our subtropical landscape, diminish our uniqueness for tourists and residents alike, and reduce property values for nearby residential and commercial property.”

William Brinton, a Jacksonville attorney who does pro bono work for Citizens for a Scenic Florida and Scenic America, is involved in the fight as well. In fact, thanks to his intervention, the city’s proposed deal with FDOT and FHWA has been put on hold. Fear is motivating Brinton -- fear that the deal, if approved, would erode the intent of the federal Highway Beautification Act of 1965, which is to control the proliferation of advertisements along interstates and highways. (City commissioners are scheduled to discuss the matter on September 12.)

Brinton also argues forcefully that Miami’s existing law governing wall murals is unconstitutional. How so? Courts have repeatedly found that banning outdoor advertisements doesn’t violate First Amendment rights of free speech, Brinton says. That’s why numerous communities and even four states (Alaska, Hawaii, Vermont, and New Hampshire) have managed to outlaw billboards entirely.

But to restrict a form of speech unless a property owner or an advertising company pays large sums of money to the city government -- that, Brinton insists, is a violation of the First Amendment: “Basically, this is a speech-licensing scheme on private property.”

ECoverStory_5ston “Dusty” Melton worked as a Miami Herald reporter before becoming a lobbyist in 1984. Today Melton advises Scenic Miami, although he says he doesn’t mind billboards and murals. In fact, 28-years-ago Melton was hired by billboard companies to lobby for a law -- successfully -- that enabled billboards to be legally constructed next to expressways in Dade County. But Melton became upset  with some in the billboard industry who brazenly flouted the law. And he has grown frustrated with City of Miami officials who routinely ignore current laws that, with rare exceptions, ban LED billboards and “automatic electronic changing signs” anywhere in the county.

"The City of Miami, since July 2003, has engaged in serial acts of municipal prostitution,” Melton charges. “By that I mean the Miami City Commission authorizing certain types of things in clear and blatant violation of the countywide sign code, in exchange for millions of dollars paid to the city by the sign companies.”

Indeed, Miami-Dade County attorney Robert Cuevas, in an April 2012 letter to county Commissioner Barbara Jordan, says the city is in violation by allowing electronic billboards within its city limits. Enforcement of that law, however, requires authorization from the county mayor or the county commission, Cuevas adds.

That authorization has not yet been granted.

CoverStory_6Meanwhile, the county’s tenant at the American Airlines Arena, the Miami Heat, continues to display prohibited commercials on its giant electronic screen. The Heat can legally have a digital sign since the arena sits on more than ten acres of land, as required by county law. But it can’t advertise products not related to what is sold inside the arena, Cuevas says. The county could fine the Miami Heat tens of thousands of dollars. So far, the county has only sent warnings.

“We have told them several times that they should only have point-of-sale advertising,” laments Eric Silva of the county’s Regulatory and Economic Resources department. “We have tried to keep on top of them.”

The county has also been less than vigilant with the City of Miami. In fact, county commissioners in 2007 gave approval to the city for special “mural” districts that include chunks of Brickell, downtown, Park West, Omni, the Design District, and the Civic Center/Jackson Hospital area. The county even expanded area -- twice -- allowing the mural districts to cover greater segments of the interstate and state-maintained highways, without concern for the federal Highway Beautification Act.

Right now, Miami makes at least $4 million per year from billboards and murals, says Commissioner Marc Sarnoff, whose district includes downtown Miami and Brickell.

Approximately $1 million of that is generated by permit fees from three billboard companies: CBS Outdoor, Clear Channel Outdoor, and Carter Outdoor. Between 2003 and 2008, the city approved a series of settlement agreements that gave those three companies the exclusive right to maintain a total of 45 billboards near I-95 -- areas within 600 feet of the roadway that were once protected by city and county laws.

In return, the billboard companies paid the city lump sums of cash and pledged to remove certain billboards elsewhere in the city. “The city was trying to encourage more profitable locations,” explains Mike Llorente, chief of staff for Commissioner Francis Suarez, who was elected after the original settlements were approved. “The idea was that the billboard companies would be encouraged to take billboards out of residential communities.”

The other $3 million annually comes from murals, Sarnoff says. Miami receives fees ranging from $48,000 to $120,000 a year for the 35 city-permitted murals now existing in the city. Under the city’s current ordinance, another ten can be installed.

CoverStory_7Sarnoff was once a critic of outdoor advertisements, but now he’s a fan of the city’s mural ordinance. Instead of 87 unregulated murals, Sarnoff says, the city will have only 45, with tight design standards whereby only 15 percent of an ad’s content can have words, and adult content is prohibited. “I wanted to create scarcity,” he explains, “scarcity that will create value.”

As a result, the murals provide decent revenue for a city prone to financial meltdowns. Sarnoff says he’s not distressed at the prospect of giving up half the mural revenue to FDOT because he’s certain that money will be reinvested in state roads within Miami. He also dismisses complaints by Scenic Miami activists. “Most of what they get is wrong and is factually and legally incorrect,” he says, later adding: “Opinions are like belly buttons, everyone has one.”

Yet when it comes to presumably illegal LED advertisements, Sarnoff respects the opinion of Miami City Attorney Julie Bru, who claims that Miami no longer must follow Miami-Dade’s billboard laws. “In this case, I go by what the city attorney tells me,” Sarnoff says.

Bru believes that the city is no longer obligated to abide by the county’s outdoor advertising law because Miami “opted out” of it. The opportunity to opt out was created in 2007, when county officials allowed cities to opt out of one specific provision of its sign law. That provision is a “protected zone” that prohibited outdoor advertisements within 600 feet of an expressway.

Cities choosing to opt out of that part of the county’s law would be free to sanction billboards adjacent corridors like I-95, I-395, and the Palmetto. So far, eight cities have opted out: Cutler Bay, Doral, Hialeah, Hialeah Gardens, Medley, Miami, North Miami, and Sweetwater.

Bru’s interpretation is much broader: If you opt out of the “protected zone” provision, you’ve opted out of everything in the law. County attorney Robert Cuevas says no: Opting out applies solely to the protected zone. At the moment, the issue remains a legal stalemate.

Outdoor advertising is tightly controlled in most cities along the Biscayne Corridor. El Portal, Biscayne Park, Miami Shores, and Bay Harbor Islands have banned billboards altogether, and placed restrictions on other signs. North Miami Beach prohibits billboards, too, but city officials reserve the right to permit advertisements on street furniture such as bus benches.

Aventura doesn’t allow outdoor advertisements of any kind, although there are exceptions. Five billboards west of Biscayne Boulevard are allowed to remain because they were erected prior to Aventura’s 1995 incorporation, says city manager Eric Soroka. In 2003, a variance allowed Clear Channel to raise the height of its billboard next to the flyover at NE 203rd Street and Biscayne Boulevard. In exchange, Clear Channel let the city use one of the billboard’s sign faces. Soroka says the deal brings in $144,000 per year, which is funneled to the Aventura City of Excellence Charter School. When the arrangement ends in 2015, Soroka adds, the billboard will come down.

WCoverStory_8ithin the City of Miami, laws prohibiting outdoor advertisements of any kind by interstate highways have existed since the early 1960s. First, Metro-Dade County banned outdoor advertisements of any kind countywide within 600 feet of newly constructed I-95 in 1963. Then the City of Miami followed with its own ban of billboards within the 600-foot protected zone in 1965, the same year the Highway Beautification Act was passed.

Florida, however, never got around to passing any laws governing signage by the interstate or state highways until 1972, and only after the federal government threatened to cut transit funding.

Prior to the passage of those laws, signs of every kind infested major thoroughfares, remembers Arva Moore Parks. The neon signs as you entered Miami from Miami Beach, along the MacArthur Causeway, were especially gaudy. “That’s why I laugh when people say the Herald building ruined the view of Biscayne Bay,” quips Parks. “The Herald building actually improved the bayfront. I remember those signs. When you came across the causeway, they were particularly prominent.”

A faded aerial picture of the MacArthur Causeway from the 1950s was included in a packet the City of Miami sent to FDOT in 2011. It showed gigantic signs lining the bayshore by the causeway. Big signs were also featured in several other photographs, shot from 1927 to 1969, included in the packet, among them the iconic Coppertone billboard depicting a mischievous dog pulling down a little girl’s bathing suit.

Under a Florida statute, cities are allowed to avoid state guidelines governing outdoor advertisements if different standards existed prior to 1972. The old photos were the city’s proof that signs as large as 14,000 square feet were “customary” before Florida enacted its sign laws.

William Brinton insists that the outdoor advertisements shown in the city’s packet were illegal in Miami by the 1960s and thus not “customary.”

CoverStory_9“To be blunt, false representations have been made as to the customary size of outdoor advertising signs in the City of Miami at the critical dates to secure your agency’s approval,” Brinton wrote in a July 8 letter to FDOT.

Brinton leveled even more stinging rebukes in a July 24 letter to the Federal Highway Administration. He included photographs of the western face of the Miami River Center, the city’s administrative office building. Covering that west wall is a huge advertising mural. The Van Wagner company pays Miami $9250 per month plus a percentage of revenue for the privilege of using its building as a giant billboard. The murals draped over the Miami River Center have included ads for Heineken beer, a Spike TV show called Auction Hunters, and most recently, CNN’s new morning show A New Day.

However, the city’s building, which is 300 feet from I-95, is zoned “civic institutional.” FDOT doesn’t permit advertisements on such buildings within 600 feet of an interstate highway.

“A billboard at this particular site represents the most egregious violation of the Highway Beautification Act that I have ever seen,” Brinton stated in his letter to FHWA officials. “And I can tell you that I have seen thousands of violations over the past 30 years. Behind these billboards are the 7th floor offices for the Miami Code Enforcement Department, the 8th floor offices for the Miami Public Works Department, and the 9th floor offices of the Office of the City Attorney.”

Brinton calls this sign “the most illegal billboard in America.”

The summer of 2007 wasn’t the first time the county relinquished control to the cities regarding billboards along I-95. In 1981, Metro-Dade County allowed cities to opt out of its highway advertising ban. Soon afterward, “along the Palmetto, in Hialeah, Hialeah Gardens, Medley, a veritable forest of billboards came out of the ground and they are there, legally, to this day,” recalls lobbyist Dusty Melton.

County commissioners Beverly Phillips and Harvey Ruvin regretted that law. So they pushed to resume control over expressway billboards and raise the minimum standards countywide -- outright banning balloon signs, rooftop signs, and most electronic signs whether or not they were next to highways.

The more powerful sign code was passed by the county commission in 1985. However, the law permitted the City of Miami to allow exactly ten more billboards on the west side of I-95 from just three billboard companies: Flutie Outdoor, Ackerley Outdoor, and E.A. Hancock Outdoor Advertising. The west side requirement was meant to protect panoramic views of Biscayne Bay and Miami Beach that still existed at that time. Lobbyist Dusty Melton helped make the deal happen. Melton calls it the “Great Billboard Compromise of 1985.”

“The understanding was that these were the last ten billboards west of I-95, and that remained true for about the next 15 years,” Melton says. “And then Carter started selling new expressway billboards on the east side of I-95.”

Melton is referring to Carter Outdoor, a Fort Myers billboard company that began applying for billboard permits in 1997 along the east side of I-95. In spite of the Great Compromise, the City of Miami and the state granted permits to Carter for additional billboards near I-95.

Soon Carter was putting up billboards on the east side of the interstate. Other companies followed Carter’s lead and began constructing billboards east of I-95. A Miami New Times article noted that by the year 2000, instead of the intended 10 billboards, there were 31 along the interstate within Miami city limits.

This angered Melton and led to his break-up with the billboard industry. “It aggravated me for a couple of reasons,” he explains. “First, I’m a big fan of the rule of law. I think corporations should obey the law, especially since they know they’re breaking the law. Second, as one of the authors of the sign code, I was personally offended that the billboard companies were not following the rules that the entire industry agreed to follow.”  

Biscayne Times contributor Frank Rollason, a former Miami assistant city manager, and now interim manager for North Bay Village, says some billboard companies didn’t even bother to get permits.

What motivated this billboard frenzy? Money. Rollason recalls overhearing a conversation between two billboard executives. One of them mentioned that he sold two nearby billboards for $10 million. “Wow, that told me something,” Rollason says. “You don’t spend $10 million for two billboards if you’re not raking in big bucks.”

By 2002, city officials had had enough. They issued citations on more than 100 billboards, and did so in a rush to beat pending state legislation that would require cities to pay compensation for billboards removed from the public right-of-way. Soon the city was tangling in court with the three biggest billboard companies in the Magic City -- National (later CBS) Outdoor, Clear Channel, and Carter. Circuit court judges ruled in favor of Miami in all three cases.

“The City of Miami kept on winning,” Brinton says. “They were close to becoming billboard-free.”

But the billboard companies kept appealing to higher courts. Eventually, Miami decided to settle all three cases.

ACoverStory_10vra Jain doesn’t just renovate old motels along Biscayne Boulevard. Her development acumen includes building walls for mural ads. Specifically a wall next to I-195’s exit ramp for the Design District, Midtown, and Wynwood.

The mural space is part of a two-story, 20,000-square-foot building that now houses a furniture showroom for Clima Outdoor and Alno Kitchens at 3650 N. Miami Ave. Jain and Mark Van Fossen bought the building for $2.7 million in August 2011, according to county records. They sold it in May 2013 for $5.5 million. Between buying it and selling it, in March 2012, Miami-Dade County included the building within the city’s mural district.

Van Fossen sells outdoor advertising space in various cities around the country, along with Barry Rush, an ad exec who is infamous in Los Angeles for his battles with that city regarding outdoor ads. (In Miami, Rush’s company, World Wide Rush, is represented by attorney Lucia Dougherty and political consultant François Ilias.)

Jain says that the mural component actually made the N. Miami Avenue property more valuable. She also adds that murals are beneficial to condo owners, too. “I live in 900 Biscayne, and the murals [attached to it] subsidize the building’s maintenance,” she notes. “The murals at Marina Blue get about $300,000 a year and it doesn’t go to one person. All 500 units get a piece of that.”

One of the property owners benefiting from murals is Miami-Dade County itself. The county’s North Loop Cooling Plant in Miami has a giant mural on it that faces I-395. “The city has just been thumbing its nose at the county over this for years,” says former Miami administrator Rollason. “The county has backed off -- because they have joined in.”

Mural lobbyist Dougherty points out that a recent poll conducted by public radio station WLRN-FM revealed that a majority of listeners who responded thought the cooling plant looked better with an iPad mural than without it.

But not all buildings look like the county’s chiller plant, counters historian Arva Moore Park. “Some of our new buildings, what you’re doing to them…” she says with a sigh. “You’re hiding some of our better-looking buildings with signs.”

So what do Miami officials think of outdoor advertisements?

CoverStory_11Mayor Tomás Regalado, who supported the media tower deal with Siffin in 2010, claiming it would “create jobs,” says that since Miami is a world-class city, “we can’t ignore the advertising.” But because the billboards are tied to complicated settlement agreements and long-term leases with property owners, the mayor says there’s not much he can do: “Do we have in some areas, too many? Yes we do, but again, that is due to contracts that the city has entered into throughout the years.”

Commissioner Francis Suarez, who is running against Regalado in November for the mayor’s seat, voted in favor of city codes allowing LED advertisements in Miami, including Siffin’s media tower proposal. Yet Mike Llorente, Suarez’s chief of staff, insists the commissioner opposed other efforts to expand advertising in the city “behind the scenes,” and voted against measures to allow advertisements on parking meters (which passed in spite of his No vote).

And Sarnoff? Would he support a complete ban on outdoor advertising in Miami? The commissioner says he’d regret the city losing out on $4 million from outdoor advertisement permits. He also doubts such a measure would get much support at city hall.

“If I were the dictator of Miami, lord and master, lots of things would be different,” he jokes. “But I’m not the declared lord and master. I have to work with my colleagues. The best thing I can do is heavily regulate something, and the city’s mural ordinance is probably the most heavily regulated ever seen.”

Peter Ehrlich of Scenic Miami was once an aide to Sarnoff, but on this subject they sharply disagree. “Residents and tourists are not asking for more visual pollution,” Ehrlich says. “The only people asking for more billboards are billboard lobbyists and out-of-state billboard companies. Elected officials need to listen to their constituents. Elected officials need the courage to just say No.”


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