With a new ordinance, downtown Atlanta could get a lot brighter

Central Atlanta Progress is proposing an ordinance that would allow new digital billboards and signs
Downtown Atlanta
Photograph by Lauren Holley @graphiknation

Downtown Atlanta is set to become much brighter under a proposed ordinance that would allow—and even encourage—expansive new digital billboards and flashing signs in the area that includes the CNN Center, Centennial Olympic Park, the Georgia Aquarium, and the sports arenas.

The changes are aimed to create a lively, colorful atmosphere around the main tourist destinations through the use of digital technology that could coordinate images and messages across a series of lighted signs to promote, say, major sporting events or local attractions. One of the models is L.A. Live, a glitzy complex adjoining the convention center in downtown Los Angeles that includes music venues, movie theaters, restaurants, and the Staples Center.

The proposal, introduced at City Council last week, would designate a so-called “arts and entertainment district” covering much of the downtown central business district with its own set of signage rules and guidelines, explained Jennifer Ball, vice president of planning and economic development for Central Atlanta Progress, which has taken the lead on the project.

The success of the plan, she said, lies in a trade-off in which sign companies and property owners would be allowed to install large, digital billboards in exchange for allowing those signs to be programmed by a quasi-governmental district authority during major downtown events. In this case, that authority would be the Atlanta Downtown Improvement District, which is managed by CAP.

The impetus for the creation of the signage district came with the 2013 Final Four in Atlanta, when the NCAA lobbied the city for control of downtown billboards in order to promote major event sponsors. Without the ability to program signage, Atlanta could risk losing out on other major events in the future.

The city’s existing sign ordinance is so restrictive regarding size and placement that Ponce City Market required a special exemption to install the large sign that overhangs Ponce de Leon Avenue.

While the proposed ordinance would establish guidelines for the design of new downtown billboards, CAP officials believe sign companies will eagerly opt into the district in order to install larger and more eye-catching signs, Ball said. Commercial property owners are expected to welcome high-tech signage that brings more energy to downtown. And large-scale sports events will be more likely to choose Atlanta as a host city if they can coordinate game-day advertising with sponsors.

As for the public benefit, Ball said the arrangement would give the district authority use of the signs to promote local events, share public service announcements, and even display artwork. Plus, a percentage of the advertising revenue from the signs could be spent within the district on such items as streetscape improvements or security.

Assuming the council passes the legislation sometime this month, the city could begin issuing new sign permits by March 2017.