In downtown Atlanta, a billboard flashed residents in more ways than one

The Arts & Entertainment Atlanta district, an initiative approved by the city in 2017 to “awaken” downtown by introducing outdoor media displays, has put up several new billboards. Sometimes, the results can be a little awkward for those living there.

Downtown billboards

Photograph by Heather Buckner

Doug Elliott, a retired higher-ed executive, sits down to breakfast every morning with a coffee, perhaps some cereal, and Kim Kardashian’s boobs in his face.

The billboard sits across from his apartment downtown. It’s one of several new billboards that have been erected in the Arts & Entertainment Atlanta district—an initiative, approved by the city in 2017, to “awaken” downtown by introducing outdoor media displays by local artists as well as advertisers. Many of the signs are digital, some flashing. And every once in a while, there’s a conflict about where they should go and what should be on display.

In this case, it’s an ad for Skims, Kim Kardashian’s shapewear brand. Kardashian’s torso in a bra is displayed on a five-story-tall billboard by Orange Barrel Media next to the Westin. It’s a block away from Elliott’s apartment at the corner of William and Cone streets.

At one point, the lights around it would strobe, Elliott said. He and others in his apartment have been complaining to the billboard company for a while. They’ve modified the lighting. But it’s still awkward.

“They’re in his living room,” says Dorthey Hurst, a longtime resident who has been deeply engaged in civic issues downtown for years. “They’re just on my sofa. I can turn my back occasionally. He can’t ignore them. This weekend, they turned the lights back on the boobie girls. They weren’t supposed to. We had a conversation.”

By industry standards, it’s far enough away to be considered an indirect impact, says Jennifer Ball of Central Atlanta Progress, which manages A&E Atlanta through its Atlanta Downtown Improvement District arm. “The CAP/ADID and Orange Barrel teams have worked—and will continue to work per our standard procedures—with residents on addressing light levels, dimming at night, hours of operation, and the fine-tuning of directional lighting to mitigate impacts,” she said.

The conflict highlights an urban-planning conundrum downtown. On the one hand, office buildings are increasingly hollow shells as occupancy rates crater in the historic work-from-home shift happening everywhere. The city is actively planning for these buildings to be converted into housing over time. CAP and others want more people living downtown, just like Midtown and elsewhere. A&E Atlanta is the city’s shot at giving its downtown core a more Times Square feel, particularly once the pedestrian density begins to make it worth the investment.

On the other hand . . . boobs.

“There are people who live downtown now,” Elliott says. “And if you want more people to move downtown and be able to have a Thanksgiving dinner and not look at boobs, you know, they need to address that issue.”

This article appears in our January 2023 issue.