New York City's Struggle to Take Down Illegal Billboards

City government and citizen vigilantes wage a losing battle against Clear Channel and illegal ads

Over the past seven years, Jordan Seiler estimates that he's taken down hundreds of billboards, posters, and other signs to replace advertising in public places with his own artwork.

Armed with a screwdriver and anti-vandal bits, Seiler commits his acts of vandalism both as an ongoing art project and as a political statement: Thousands of billboards in the city, he says, are technically illegal.

And he's right. According to the city, all billboards within 200 feet of "arterial highways"—the West Side Highway, the FDR, the BQE, and major thoroughfares such as Brooklyn's Eastern Parkway—have been illegal since the 1940s. All ads put up on scaffolding and construction sheds are illegal, too, unless they're advertising the business whose signage has been covered up.

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Jordan Seiler replacing mens' room ads with his own artwork

As Seiler has discovered, once you know the rules, you realize that illegal ads are, literally, everywhere: on building walls, sidewalk sheds, phone kiosks, and alongside highways. There are so many of them, it makes you wonder if that city has given up on enforcing its own laws.

The city hasn't given up—over the past two years, New York has been fighting what amounts to a sign war with outdoor advertising companies. The Department of Buildings claims the ads are a threat to public safety and a major cause of visual pollution. The advertisers argue that the signs can't really be so bad if the city has neglected to take them down for decades.

In 2000, Mayor Rudy Giuliani announced that the city would be cracking down on the hundreds of illegal billboards lining the highways. The City Council raised the criminal fines for an illegal billboard from $5,000 to $25,000 and put size limits in place. Until then there had been no limit at all, and most advertisers had considered the fines to be "a small cost of doing business," according to city lawyer Gabriel Taussig. Billboards in high-traffic areas are estimated to draw more than $50,000 each month. Some can draw hundreds of thousands in revenue.

Eight years later, however, not a single billboard has been removed. After the zoning resolution went into effect in 2006, Clear Channel sued the city, saying that the laws infringed on its First Amendment rights. (According to SEC filings, the company had more than 16,000 advertising displays in New York that year.) Until the lawsuit is resolved, the buildings department can't take down any illegal billboards.

In 2007, the city was also sued by another advertiser: Metro Fuel LLC, which is owned by the hedge fund Och-Ziff Capital, has erected 360 illuminated "panel signs" throughout the city. By the company's own estimate, 90 percent of its signs are technically illegal—their brightness is considered a safety hazard, and their locations violate zoning ordinances. (Panel signs look like rectangular flaps or flags and are attached to the signs of buildings.) Jacksonville-based attorney Bill Brinton, who has fought more than 30 cases against advertising companies in the past two decades, says Metro Fuel is following a pattern around the country: putting up illegal signs and, when a city objects, challenging the constitutionality of sign laws. The strategy worked in Los Angeles, where a district court, ruling in favor of the company, struck down the city's outdoor-advertising laws (Los Angeles appealed the case to the Ninth Circuit Court. Oral arguments were heard in June). Fuel Outdoors, which is involved in another pending lawsuit in San Francisco, hired a mighty legal team in the Los Angeles case: Harvard constitutional-law expert Laurence Tribe and the politically connected Washington law firm Akin Gump.

As in the case of the highway billboards, the panel signs will stay up during the legal battle.

Like Clear Channel, Metro Fuel contends that the city has been inconsistent— and not only because it's been lax in enforcing its own laws over the years. The company's lawyers also claim that New York operates under a double standard, attacking privately owned outdoor- advertising companies while profiting off the city's own ads—ads that Metro Fuel argues violate the very same regulations.

And New York makes a lot of money on public advertising. The ads placed on the city's 13,000 public-phone kiosks— many of which contain phones that no longer work—bring in more than $13 million each year for the city. That's triple the amount of revenue that comes from the phone calls themselves.

But the real moneymaker is the city's 2005 contract to build thousands of pieces of street furniture, including bus shelters, newsstands, and public pay toilets. The Spanish company Cemusa—which beat out Clear Channel in its bid to build the structures—secured rights to place advertising on every piece of furniture, and has promised the city half the gross revenues from the ads: $1 billion over the 20-year life of the contract.

"The city has shot itself in the foot by putting up all this coordinated street furniture," says Vanessa Gruen, special projects director for the Municipal Art Society, which has been campaigning against illegal billboards since 2001. "They're breaking their own regulation—obviously. Sooner or later, some advertising company was going to come along and say, 'If they can do it, I can do it, too.'"

Seiler, the anti-advertising artist, has joined a group of activists who have been reporting suspicious ads to the city. "I don't have issues with advertising, but with your ability to turn it off," says the 28-year-old, whose day job is a freelance photographer for fashion magazines. Making his way back to his Chelsea studio after prowling for illegal ads, Seiler used his Verizon Key—a special key that the company makes to prevent vandalism, which he'd bought from a Verizon worker on the street a few years ago—to remove a movie poster from one of the company's phone kiosks.

"I have no remorse," Seiler says cheerily. "I think we can all agree that public advertising is a manipulative, powerful medium that isn't in the best interest of the general public. It takes up my mental space, and it's assaulting."

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