A ten-by-ten LED billboard at Clark and Diversey
A ten-by-ten LED billboard at Clark and Diversey Credit: Jennifer McLaughlin

I’m in Heidi Massa’s Lincoln Park apartment, 31 stories up. It’s 5:45 AM, and we’re looking out at her expansive view. The sun’s not up yet, and the sky and the city are the same misty shade—soft, early-morning gray, spangled with streetlights that mostly have a mellow, golden glow.

Everything looks so peaceful in this predawn hush.

Well, nearly everything. Off to the northwest, there is one tiny, nervous disruption—a pulsing, blazing button, brighter than anything else in view and urgent as a mote in your eye.

It’s the Wrigley/Lotto LED billboard on the Kennedy, miles away.

And then, I see, there’s another. A smaller sign, closer, but still perhaps a mile away, flaring red and white and magenta.

“That’s a ten-by-ten,” Massa says, the same size as her nemesis, which bursts into view at 6 AM sharp.

This one is blocks away, but close enough, she says, that before she got it dimmed—before the company behind the LED billboard agreed to turn it off at 11 PM, and before it quit flashing white light between image changes—it turned the walls of this room into a light show.

Erecting a big billboard of any kind in Chicago (unless it’s on the site of the business it advertises) requires the local alderman’s approval. But smaller signs—those measuring 100 square feet or less, with a height of up to 24 feet—weren’t enough of an issue for aldermen to bother with until the last few years, when LED technology got cheap enough to put the little signs on steroids. And that’s when they began to pop up all over the city.

In July the City Council put a stop to it, with a nine-month moratorium that’s supposed to give an aldermanic task force time to study the issue. This is the same City Council that seven months earlier approved a deal that’ll clutter city highways with 34 big new double-faced LED billboards, with the potential for more.

“We still have an opportunity to regulate the LEDs, but if we don’t, the proliferation will turn the city into a Las Vegas atmosphere.”—Alderman Scott Waguespack, sponsor of an ordinance that would give aldermen more discretion over digital signage

That doesn’t inspire confidence in Massa, who began writing her alderman about LED signs in October 2007, and in the days before the highway billboard vote sent every alderman a series of e-mails that laid out the many reasons they shouldn’t approve it.

Among them, she says, is this: “In your traditional billboard, what we’re looking at is reflected light. That’s how we see everything else in the world. So when a sign is a light emitter, rather than a light reflector, we have a whole different kettle of fish.

“The point is that, out here, we can see this thing that’s miles away because it’s up above everything else, it’s the size of a two-bedroom apartment, and its colors are not found in nature. How is it going to be when we have more than 60 additional faces of these things?”

And, she says, in all the discussions about driver distraction, there’s been little attention to the fact that “these things blind people at night. It takes a surprisingly long time for the human eye to adjust to the light conditions after being gobsmacked by the level of light these billboards emit.

“The problem is the difference in luminosity between that billboard and everything else around it. If these things were dialed down, if they were made to be responsive to the ambient light conditions—which the technology is perfectly capable of doing—they would be far less offensive.

“The sign companies are going to say, we like these things because we can rotate the images,” Massa says. “Well, if all you care about is the rotational capacity, if the only difference between this and a traditional billboard is that the image can change every eight seconds, then make the intensity match the ambient light. And put in fade-in, fade-outs. That would go a very long way toward solving the problems of ugly and dangerous.”

Alderman Scott Waguespack (32nd Ward), who’s a member of the task force on signs, has proposed an ordinance that would give aldermen the same discretion on smaller signs that they now have for the big billboards, putting the responsibility for LED control directly in their hands. That could be a recipe for disaster. But four years ago, a Waguespack attempt to overhaul the sign code was killed by aldermen concerned about a reduction to their discretionary authority. So this is what Waguespack might be able to get passed. “It’s better than what we currently have, which is no control at all,” he says.

The new ordinance has been on the desk of the zoning committee chair since March, and hasn’t yet appeared on the committee’s agenda. Meanwhile, Waguespack says, he hasn’t been informed of any task force meetings.

“We still have an opportunity to regulate the LEDs,” Waguespack adds, “but if we don’t, the proliferation will turn the city into a Las Vegas atmosphere. That’s the worry with the mayor’s billboards on the highways, and these ten-by-tens that are not regulated anywhere.”