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The Odd Saga Of Parkland For Billboards

Remember the cliché about "the deal you can't refuse?" The park-for-a-billboard caper in the city of Los Angeles is just such a deal. I'll tell you about it. (Just as soon, that is, as you put that bottle back in the bag where it belongs. I have no desire to add another item to my institutional resume.)

Granted, the billboard story is hard to explain, because at bottom this deal makes so little sense. The City of Los Angeles has nothing to do with this lawsuit, so why is it involved? The people bringing the lawsuit have no case, so why do they win a settlement? But in April, the Los Angeles City Council approved a deal that gives the city a 10-acre site in South Central L.A. for development of a neighborhood park. In exchange, another neighborhood near downtown L.A. gets a pair of digital signs that may end up as a tall as a seven-story building. And thereby hangs the tale. But I'm getting ahead of myself. (A taste? I though you'd never ask. Like they say: In wine is truth.)

Once upon a time, in 1996, the City of Los Angeles outlaws billboards. In 2006, the last 14 surviving examples of outdoor advertising are to be found in the city's affluent Westside, along a major thoroughfare that is starting a beautification project. The city tells the owner of the signs, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA), to yank them in the name of all that is beautiful. The MTA, you may recall, is the purveyor of bus and commuter-rail transit to Los Angeles County. The advertising folks who were renting the billboard space from the transit agency were reportedly on a month-to-month lease, and the MTA thinks it has the right to serve them with a 30-day notice. In MTA's mind, when a billboard landlord says quit, the cookie has crumbled. Revenoo, adoo.

The business of selling men's cologne and tight-fitting blue jeans on large outdoor signs is a lucrative one, however, and the billboard men are loathe to quit. And, like many other Californians, they have been known to consort with some litigious elements. "Hate for any unpleasantness to rear its head," they say, "but we may be forced to bring an action."

"Bring all the actions you want, my dear sirs," replies the man with the bus, "but you'd best pull down those pictures of glamorous, half-dressed people for the time being."

Fly forward a few months, and the billboard guy and his blue-suited lawyer are standing in front of the magistrate. "The MTA, your honor, has unfairly quashed our trade," says the lawyer, whose hair is standing up in stiff little spikes, as if trying to pull up stakes and run away from him in embarrassment. "We seek a remedy," he adds.

The judge just frowns and says, "Well, well!" He doesn't look like he's much impressed with the argument by the man with the vertical hair. But he doesn't throw the case out on its ear, either.

So one night the transit authority is having a sip with the City of Los Angeles. "What a heap of trouble you've gotten me into by tellin' me to pull down them signs," the bus boss says to the municipality. "That pint-sized outdoor advertiser has hung me up like a wool suit in a closet full of moths."

"Anything I can do to help?" says the City of Los Angeles, batting its eyes like a seductive siren. "I mean, why don't you settle with those fellows?"

"You mean throw them a bone?" says the MTA, who by now has parked his bus on the bar stool next to him. "Why should I? I'm not made out of money."

"Well, you are rich in certain terrestrial assets," said the City of Los Angeles, with a blush rising from her own suggestion.

"You tellin' me I should give my adversary a bus?" asks the man from MTA. The City shakes her head no.

"Not a train! Never will I give that man a train!" says Mr. MTA. "I brought those things all the way from Germany!"

"No, you big, rubber-wheeled dummy," says the City. "You have land."

"Land?" says the MTA, innocently. "What's that worth?"

"Land is worth anything somebody is willing to pay for it," says Ms. City, coming in for the kill. "Such as what you're willing to pay to get yourself out of a jam."

"Oh, saints in heaven, is it possible?" says the hopeful MTA, thinking such a thing too good to be true.

"Catch this: I'll let you off the hook by allowing those billboard gentlemen a couple of big signs. And not just ordinary signs, mind you, but big come-gamble-in-Commerce-Casino signs, 76 feet tall, that would be visible from Interstate 10."

"You'd do all that for me?" says MTA, with the dewy eyes of one entranced. "What's the catch?"

"I want that 10-acre bus yard in South Central for a park, mister," says the City, poking him in the chest like an adorable child. "And I won't take no for an answer."

"That's all?" gasps a relieved MTA, who was afraid the City would ask for cash money. "Take it, it's yours," adds the now-cheerful transit district. "Goodnight and good riddance."

And so here we are. Some citizen groups — quaint folk, they — are left askance. "Couldn't we have a park without the billboards?" asks one naive young thing. "I hardly see how one necessitates the other."

"My dear child," says the City, "you don't get something for nothing." Besides, as Councilwoman Jan Perry has told the Los Angeles Times, that working-class downtown L.A. has done the rich Westside a favor by taking on those dreadful signs. And the settlement is a "win-win," as they like to say in the business world. The city gets a new park for almost nothing, while the transit agency gets a lucrative income stream from billboards that nobody else is allowed to have — that is, until the next billboard advertiser sues in hopes of a similar windfall settlement. (What? The bottle is empty so soon, and the night so young? I must decamp to a new venue with a fresh supply of refreshments, before this story has made the rounds. Cheers!)

(With apologies to the ghost of Damon Runyon.)