Billboard Proposal is “Rash That Won’t Go Away”

Update: New Ward 3 Council Member Steve Fletcher has confirmed that the billboard proposal is dead.

The mysteriously persistent proposal to allow more billboards in downtown Minneapolis has Planning Commissioner John Slack feeling as if he’d like to pour a bottle of antibiotics all over it:

For me this is like the rash that won’t go away. I don’t see how this supports any of the comprehensive plan goals, I don’t see how this improves livability in the downtown. All I see is negative and adverse effects.

As described by city staff person Steve Poor, “the ordinance is designed to allow for a robust building out of off-premise advertising” in areas of downtown near stadiums and along Hennepin and Washington Avenues. The proposal was unanimously rejected by the Planning Commission in September, with near-universal negative reaction from commissioners. In October, the proposal lacked the votes to pass the City Council’s Zoning & Planning Committee. Yet the plan came back stronger and more expansive in December.

Based on discussion at December’s meeting, the only Planning Commissioner willing to support it is Rebecca Gagnon, who failed to disclose that her daughter is a lobbyist for the company who would benefit most from the change. She afterwards provided a weak defense of her failure to recuse herself from the process.

In the time since I wrote about this last month, the Star Tribune editorial board has come out against the zoning change; city staff has further consulted with City Council members, including author Abdi Warsame and others who are no longer on the City Council; and a bunch of neighbors, previously unaware of the proposal, showed up to testify against it.

One of those neighbors is Joe Tamburino, Chair of the Downtown Minneapolis Neighborhood Association. Tamburino said he spoke with the author of the zoning change, Abdi Warsame, at a retirement party for former Council President Barb Johnson. Warsame told Tamburino he doesn’t support the Washington Avenue expansion.

This raises a question I’ve had for a while: where is the political energy for this change coming from? It’s hard to find many who like the idea of more billboards downtown, and if you believe Joe Tamburino, even the nominal author of the change won’t support it entirely. There’s a confounding lack of transparency about exactly who on the City Council wants this and why.

Supporters of the plan like Barb Johnson and Warsame have been unable to articulate the public interest in easing the restriction on billboards, limiting their arguments to allowing companies like Blue Ox Media and Clear Channel to make more money from the upcoming Super Bowl in Minneapolis. (One might also speculate wildly, connecting the dots between Warsame and Johnson’s urgent arguments last October regarding the Super Bowl, and a leaked 2014 document detailing the Minneapolis Super Bowl Host Committee’s obligation to provide the NFL with 20 free billboards around the stadium, team hotels, and practice facilities.)

In order to give more chance for public feedback, the Planning Commission voted to delay a decision until the January 22 meeting.