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Light displays could transform City Hall into billboard

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(Michael Ares/Special to S.F. Examiner)

San Francisco has illuminated City Hall in orange to celebrate a Giants victory, and rainbow colors to celebrate Pride.

But that’s nothing compared to Mayor Ed Lee’s proposal to allow corporations and city-events to use digital light displays on the golden-domed building.

The prospect of digitally projected light and multimedia displays on the east side of City Hall overlooking the Civic Center Plaza is already raising questions whether it oversteps boundaries of public-private partnerships and is also sparking concerns among anti-advertisement groups.

The digital light technology is more frequently in use around the world, most recently on a grand scale in New York City, where images of animals were projected on the Empire State Building to promote an upcoming documentary “Racing Extinction” to air on the Discovery Channel.

“We believe this display option can enhance special events held at City Hall, the Main Library and the Asian Art Museum, thus affording the City’s General Fund a revenue opportunity from event sponsors,” said John Updike, director of real estate, in a July 27 letter to the Board of Supervisors.

Supervisor John Avalos said the proposal was indicative of the mayor’s cozy relationship with technology companies and his most prominent backer, tech investor Ron Conway.

“Like City Hall brought to you by Facebook, Salesforce, Big Brother of Public Private Partnerships Ron Conway?” Avalos said via text message.

The mayor has faced sustained criticism by some for favoring policies benefiting the tech industry amid soaring rents and evictions. Still, he’s running unopposed by any well-known candidate in his November re-election.

Avalos called the mayor’s proposal “an idea that symbolizes how San Francisco City Hall is for sale.” “What’s next, selling naming rights for City Hall and all the other Civic Center buildings?”

In an interview Monday, Updike said the effort was focused on civic celebration not corporations. “This is City Hall celebrating community events by and large,” Updike said.

However, companies sponsoring civic events could be acknowledged in the displays. And corporations could rent out event space at City Hall, which is an increasing practice, and pay thousands of dollars for use of the digital light display technology.

Updike said the content could not be general advertising, but it could permit use of the company name. Rules and regulations, like how many times a company could display its brand name, are still being worked out. The content, generally two-minute repeating loops, would require approval by the City Administrator’s Office.

“There will be very tight controls on this,” Updike said in the interview. The letter states: “The content of displays shall be City-approved government speech. This ordinance does not open the east facade of City Hall as a public forum, or non-public forum, for nongovernmental speech, nor shall it be open to general advertising signs.”

The technology and installation is valued at $1.5 million and would be paid for by private funding related to San Francisco’s Centennial Celebration. The technology comes from San Francisco-based Osbcura Digital, the same company behind the Empire State building animal extinction display.

The City would mount two projectors on the roof of the Asian Arts Museum and the Main Public Library to display images on the City Hall facade across the way. A pilot display was run during the Centennial Celebration on June 19 (see video below). Since the buildings are historic, approvals for installation would need to undergo review by the Historic Preservation Commission.

Milo Hanke, the past president of SF Beautiful, a group that combats proliferation of advertising, said the proposal was “tacky as hell on the face of it” and amounted to “prostituting the best values” of The City. Hanke suggested the proposal runs afoul of the Proposition E ballot measure approved by voters in November 2009 that prohibited new advertising on public buildings.

Mayoral spokeswoman Christine Falvey said that “the light display at City Hall’s centennial celebration was very well received by the public and showcased how this new technology could be used to celebrate the City’s history and promote great civic and cultural events like Pride or Chinese New Year, just to name a few.”

She added that “the mayor looks forward to working through the guidelines on how this technology can be used in the future.”

The mayor’s proposal is expected to come under debate by the Board of Supervisors in the fall when it returns from its August legislative recess.

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