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Editorial: In Rush to Improve Coffers, City Shouldn’t Quickly Sell Kiosk Rights

A Big Outdoor digital billboard looms over Santa Monica Place.

At tonight’s meeting, the Santa Monica City Council is expected to vote on whether or not to approve a contract with BIG Outdoor, an electronic billboard company, for a 20-year contract to own, operate, and collect revenue off of “interactive” electronic kiosks. The contract includes a $4 million signing bonus and a guarantee of $5 million in revenue annually for the city with kiosks that should also provide residents and visitors with access to local maps, public wi-fie, other services, transit schedules, and security. The entire cost of the proposal would be born by BIG Outdoor, with profits split between the private company and the city.

Nevertheless, there are serious concerns with the project, and it appears the city may be heading towards another “bus stop fiasco” where the rush to do something new and different leads to a less desirable outcome. Ironically, in the case of Santa Monica’s uniquely designed and near-universally mocked bus stops, it was a desire to not clutter the public right-of-way with advertising that kicked off a process that led to the nigh-unusable shelters. Now that the economic environment for the city has changed, it’s a desire to maximize ad revenue that is taking the city in the opposite direction.

At Healthy City Local, Frank Gruber (disclosure: who’s work is often syndicated here), breaks down some of the many of the problems with the proposed contract. After summarizing Gruber’s points, we’ll also note some other objections that have been filed against the project or in the letters page of the Santa Monica Daily Press. Like Gruber, I will note that I am no an expert in either the technology or application of kiosks and as such am not advocating against BIG Outdoor or for IKE Smart City LLC, the main rival for the bid who has announced intentions to sue should BIG Outdoor with the contract.

From BIG Outdoor’s proposal. It certainly is big.

Gruber outlines several issues with the contract that the city has negotiated with Big Outdoor that the Council will vote to approve or not this evening. The issues include:

It’s not just t’s not just t’s not just t’s not just Gruber who is taking issue with the proposed kiosks. Longtime bicycling advocate Kent Strumpell penned an open letter raising concerns about the kiosks impact on mobility and traffic safety and repeated concerns that a twenty year project is tying the city’s hands should Big Outdoor not meet its goals.

“…it is likely that the billboards will be oriented perpendicular to the flow of motor vehicle traffic to maximize ad exposure,” Strumpell writes. “That orientation – and the kiosks’ glare at night – can make it difficult for transit users to see down the block for approaching buses, or speeding traffic if someone is about to enter a crosswalk, or a cyclist trying to see if it’s safe to enter an uncontrolled intersection.”

Strumpell’s letter is included in a packet of public comment available for download at the proposal’s page on the city’s website. Also included were several letters from companies who have had good experiences with BIG Outdoor and a mix of residents and businesses speaking for and against the proposal.

There’s no harm in the City Council taking a pause and doing its own due-diligence for the project. Twenty years is a longtime, and unless one of the newer CM’s leaves office and then returns, none of the councilmembers will be on the council in the latter years of this contract. If they do vote in favor of the contract tonight, it could be a way they are remembered for years to come and there seems to be a lot of outstanding issues that should be resolved.

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