Column: Tilting at Billboards

Seeking areas of collaboration between the University of Michigan and city of Ann Arbor is more productive than picking a losing fight

The Ann Arbor city council’s post-election meeting agenda for Nov. 7, 2013 would be heavy enough without the addition of an item that will almost certainly serve no purpose except political theater.

This animated .gif is purely the product of The Chronicle's art department and in not intended to imply any willingness by the University of Michigan to slot in city of Ann Arbor public service announcements.

This animated .gif is purely the product of The Chronicle’s “art department” and is not intended to imply even indirectly a willingness by the University of Michigan athletic department to provide a slot in the marquee’s message rotation for city of Ann Arbor public service announcements.

The council will be considering a resolution that asks the University of Michigan to decommission the $2.8 million digital marquee recently constructed by the university’s athletic department. I don’t think the university is going to give that any thought.

In this unnecessary drama, Christopher Taylor (Ward 3) appears to be playing the role of Don Quixote, with four councilmembers auditioning for the role of Sancho – Marcia Higgins (Ward 4), Margie Teall (Ward 4), Sally Petersen (Ward 2) and Jane Lumm (Ward 2). Those five are co-sponsoring the resolution. [If the council really wants to tilt at windmills, the city could have a literal one soon enough.]

The council’s Nov. 7 resolution cites the city’s own recently enacted sign ordinance, which constrains the deployment of digital technology for outdoor signs. According to the resolution, the marquee inflicts the same harms on the community that the city’s newly amended ordinance sought to prevent. [Petersen and Higgins, however, voted against that ordinance.] Those harms are described in the resolution as “distract[ing] motorists and substantially degrad[ing] the community viewshed…”

As the text of the council’s Nov. 7 resolution itself concedes, the University of Michigan is “without any obligation to comply with the ordinances of the city of Ann Arbor” – so the fact that the UM’s marquee rather flagrantly flouts the city council’s sign ordinance is of no consequence.

What is semantically bizarre about the text of the resolution is its contention that by turning the marquee off, or by limiting its use, the Ann Arbor community would be delivered a “material benefit.” If the council’s position really is that the marquee is doing harm, then by no rational standard should the mere mitigation of that perceived harm be labeled a “benefit,” much less a material one.

By way of analogy, if a chemical company is dumping toxic sludge onto my property and jeopardizing my health, then it’s not really a “benefit” to me if the company were to stop doing that. But it could be considered a benefit if the company allowed me to take my own personal toxic sludge and add it to the company’s pile, which the company then removed from my property.

If the city councilmembers who crafted the resolution had taken the phrase “material benefit” seriously, it might have given them pause to ask: Hey, could city residents derive some actual benefit from this situation? And that might have led them to reflect on the reason the UM athletic department wanted to construct this marquee. I think it’s an attempt to meet a communications challenge.

And guess what: The city of Ann Arbor has its own communication challenges. Can you see where this is headed? Or are you too distracted by the constantly changing display in the dumb little animated .gif at the top of this column? 

Let’s say you’re an Ann Arbor city councilmember, and you’ve identified a piece of University of Michigan communications infrastructure as your focus. That’s an occasion to ask yourself if you’re familiar with the communications infrastructure of the city. What are the basic policies and strategies the city of Ann Arbor uses to communicate with residents?

For example, the questions you might have as a councilmember could include: What’s the communications budget for the city? Is there even such a thing as a “communications budget”? What role, if any, does social media play in the city’s strategy? Why is the Community Television Network facility located way down on South Industrial Highway? How much does the city pay to lease the CTN facility? How long is that lease? Is there any kind of leadership transition going on at CTN that might have an impact on the future of CTN? Would the city of Ann Arbor have the capacity with current staff levels and expertise to participate constructively with UM on any new communications initiatives? If the university were to agree to allow the city of Ann Arbor some small number of giant marquee message slots for public service announcements, would the city be able to provide content in a timely way?

Those are all reasonable questions a naturally curious person might have. But if you serve the community as a councilmember – which is supposed to be a part-time job (paying just under $16,000 a year) – your role is to help formulate and direct policy, not micromanage solutions to problems. In the case of all matters related to the University of Michigan, I think that basic city policy should be something like: Seek areas of common ground on which the city and UM can cooperate to benefit residents and the university’s mission.

So as a city councilmember, if you recognize a giant monster in that marquee, instead of trying to figure out “the solution,” your role is to remind the city administrator of the basic policy directive. And that’s it. I think “cooperation” in this particular instance might conceivably translate in some fashion to an effort on the part of the city administrator – or staff under his direction – to convince UM athletics that a couple of slots for city of Ann Arbor public service announcements on the marquee would be feasible and in everyone’s best interest.

In any case, that approach to this “issue” is one that could be handled with a 30-second remark from a councilmember at a council meeting during communications time: “Mr. Powers, in the context of our routine interactions with the University of Michigan, can you add to your to-do list a way of realizing some benefit to residents from the university’s new marquee?”

And maybe six months later we’d start seeing announcements on the marquee reminding residents that it’s Election Day or that our winter taxes are due, or that trash pickup has shifted one day due to the recent holiday. Or not. If Powers were to report back in six months that the issue had very little traction or, for heavens sake, he just had not made that a top priority and there was nothing to report – well, that wouldn’t be the end of the world, either.

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  1. November 1, 2013 at 11:10 am | permalink

    The UM could pick up a few PR points by occasionally mixing in the names of the many non-profits that staff the concession booths, clean the stadium and Crisler at UM events on the monster billboard. The board could also be used to feature shots of Public Art around town (and campus) so that more people will be able to see where their tax money has been spent.

  2. November 1, 2013 at 11:30 am | permalink

    Kill the sign.

  3. November 1, 2013 at 11:33 am | permalink

    (bring back something subtle an understated like the halo)

  4. By Kitty B. Kahn
    November 1, 2013 at 11:34 am | permalink

    I find it hypocritical that the UM is so proud of talking about “sustainability” and yet the billboard does not use solar power. I know this because I called the Athletic Department and asked the question. I was told it would cost too much to install solar power to operate the billboard. I think perhaps they need to get their priorities straight.

  5. By Brian
    November 1, 2013 at 1:01 pm | permalink

    Who is the sign for?

    The U of M kids already know about U of M sports, and the fans also know about it. So the sign is for who, the 10 local commuters who don’t?

    1) I say limit the signs use to mostly actual game days when 100,000 people who are U of M sports fans will see it and traffic is slow.


    2) Limit the text, increase the size of text and don’t change/rotate the message to avoid too much distraction.

    As it is now, the sign is too wordy with the text too small, so drivers who look at it get distracted in my opinion.

    As for Ann Arbor use of the sign, I say we should put up an equally annoying sign on main street for local announcement to annoy U of M game commuters.

  6. November 1, 2013 at 1:23 pm | permalink

    Ideologically similar to my view…

    My problem is with the programming content. I suggest continuous episodes of Modern Family.

  7. By Occam's Butterknife
    November 1, 2013 at 1:47 pm | permalink

    The sign is a huge, ugly, over the top, blatantly commercial and unnecessary eyesore. Remember the other electronic sign in front of Chrysler a few years ago? Maintenance was spotty, until it died altogether. Makes one wonder how much it costs to maintain this giant.

    However, it is clear it is not coming down. The time for the city to get involved was before they broke ground on it, and even then the issue would have been in doubt. But the writer puts no burden on the Univ. as a part of the city to consult before doing these ego/commercial projects.

    But clearly, the Univ. is caring less and less about how the city works, lives, and looks, and more and more about making monuments to money. At least now I know I can get a hot dog at a hockey game. Worth every one of the 2.8 million dollars for that.

  8. November 1, 2013 at 4:54 pm | permalink

    It is unwise for the Council to make the legal conclusion that the Big U is “without any obligation to comply with the ordinances of the city of Ann Arbor” . Such a statement may bind the City into the future on other matters.

    I am unwilling to accept this legal conclusion in any event.

  9. By John Q.
    November 1, 2013 at 5:47 pm | permalink

    Ugly and unnecessary. I agree with the conclusion that the University’s not going to remove the billboard. But it would be foolish for the city to bless this billboard by seeking to gain some kind of “public benefit” from it. That’s the same approach that the commercial billboards have taken in other communities and all that guarantees is that these eyesores never go away. Hopefully, the alums will see this eyesore for what it is and ask for its departure. They appear to be the only ones with any ability to reign in the bad intentions of the University administrators.

  10. November 1, 2013 at 5:49 pm | permalink

    The University put up a sign that, as you say, “flagrantly flouts the city council’s sign ordinance.” The City has asked the U to please remove the sign. I see nothing wrong with that. Asking forces the University to either refuse or ignore the request, making their arrogance explicit and obvious. If we don’t ask, they might assume we don’t care that they broke the law.

    And the sign doesn’t just violate the new sign ordinance, it violates the original ordinance, the one the rest of us have had to obey since the 1960s.

  11. By Tom Brandt
    November 1, 2013 at 6:36 pm | permalink

    I never even noticed the thing until this controversy blew up. It is just part of the visual clutter that is Stadium Blvd.

  12. November 2, 2013 at 11:39 am | permalink

    This is an embarrassing and idiotic waste of time by City Council. I live in the neighborhood and drive by the sign every day. It doesn’t bother me at all.

  13. November 2, 2013 at 11:53 am | permalink

    community “viewshed” is an interesting term that gives me mixed feelings. on the one hand, it is admirable as an attempt to describe a real albeit intangible value. on the other hand, it is also rather annoyingly transparent as an attempt to appropriate some of the legal and moral authority of the term “watershed.” Do we need to start talking about property owners’ “propertyrightsshed”? ;-) [link]

    Also, I note that the standard dictionary definition regard it as a singular term. I think the community viewshed is actually the integral of all viewsheds in the community.

  14. By Keith Jefferies
    November 2, 2013 at 9:47 pm | permalink

    The stadium is discrete, attractive and so easy to miss. Like Dave Cahill’s legal assertion, above. Who cares about the sign?

  15. November 3, 2013 at 3:00 pm | permalink

    The article notes “[If the council really wants to tilt at windmills, the city could have a literal one soon enough.]” in regards to the wind turbine planned for Pioneer High School. At an Airport Advisory Committee meeting in September, someone reported to the group that the Michigan DOT had declined he City’s request for approval of the windmill at Pioneer High School. As I understood, the tower would be too tall.

    With regard to the Council’s consideration of the resolution informing the University of the Council’s dislike of the billboard, I think this is the appropriate manner to accomplish such communication. As a trusted community voice recently told me, the City Council communicates through its resolutions. No one Council member, or group of Council members can purport to communicate on behalf of the Council. The Council as a whole can only speak through resolutions that have majority support.

    While it is unlikely that the University of Michigan will remove the billboard merely because the City Council expresses its opinion on the subject, expressing that opinion could well be part of a broader campaign. The University wants community support. Our dislike of the sign and the opinions expressed by alumni may eventually result in its removal. This is what happened to the ugly “halo” and hopefully what will happen with this feature, too.

  16. November 4, 2013 at 2:42 pm | permalink

    Where were these sentiments when the AA city council and the Washtenaw County Board of Supervisors made their resolutions to repeal the Michigan Self Defense Act? That was just a useless.

  17. By Rick Cronn
    November 9, 2013 at 10:39 am | permalink

    I agree with much of what Jack Eaton says on this and other issues, but disagree that the local population caused its removal. The way I saw it was that the primary opposition to the halo came from alumni who voiced their objection to it by refusing to make charitable donations to the institution.

    I will never forget the comments made by Robert Venturi or one of his people who came to town to see the stadium before the halo, that the City of Ann Arbor was the “backyard” of the University.

    We’re nobody’s backyard, yet the UM continues to think so.