Millcreek approves another digital billboard in their new ‘pedestrian-oriented’ city center – What’s going on?

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Millcreek City Council recently approved a comprehensive signage ordinance rewrite after years of debate and back-door conversations. The vote took place at a City Council Meeting on April 8th, after six different public meetings. Despite the massive public outcry and specific councillor’s opposition, the vote passed, allowing for one additional digital sign in the city center. 

Millcreek Common is a new city center and civic campus project in the heart of the recently incorporated Millcreek Community located close to the busy intersection of 1300 E and Highland Drive. There has been a lot of progress in the area since construction started in 2021

Part of the plans originally allowed and called for highway-sized digital billboards, but this was not allowed under the past signage code. First proposed in 2021, the new signage code would allow for three digital signs, with the city owning a certain portion of the images shown. Reagan Outdoor Advertising, the company asking for this code change, would remove a number of other static signs within Millcreek. 

Removing billboards is no easy feat in Utah due to state code that gives them numerous protections. One only needs to look at new developments in Salt Lake, such as the Post District, to see how billboards have strong protections.

The Post District, when under construction, is built around billboards.

The new proposal seeks to put digital billboards in the city center on 40-year leases to private companies in exchange for them removing static billboards elsewhere in Millcreek. 

However, this proposal is not new, and some feel that it is a slightly questionable re-introduction of something the Council voted against over three years ago. 

Didn’t this already happen?  

If this feels like deja vu, it’s because this did happen before. 

In 2021, the city proposed three digital billboards to be placed in the city center. Only one was allowed and eventually built. However, this new proposal came asking for two more additional signs to bring the total amount of allowed digital signs back to three in the city center. 

This new digital sign creation is now being proposed with an entire sign ordinance rewrite Millcreek, something it has been doing with numerous codes as it grows since its incorporation. While a code update is normal, why is the city again pursuing something the public and council shut down in 2021? 

This time, the digital billboard sign proposal is written to give them leverage to negotiate with billboard companies throughout the community to remove static boards in exchange for deals with the newly allowed digital sign. So, allowing new digital signs downtown and then using that as a way to remove other static billboards throughout the community sounds great. Why all the opposition? 

Controversy

A group called We Love Millcreek has been extremely vocal, and partners with numerous other groups to stop the community from approving additional digital billboard signs in the city center.

The group is drawing attention to certain controversial actions of city staff, the mayor, and Reagan Outdoor Advertising. These claims are the same that were made in 2021, but this time Mayor Silvestrini addressed the issue publicly and also recused himself from discussion. 

We Love Millcreek still feels that the statement is not enough, as the Mayor does not mention that large portions of his campaign donations came from Reagan and that he is also a partner at the law firm Cohen Kinghorn, which has often represented Reagan. Silvestrini’s wife, Leslie Van Frank, who is also a registered lobbyist for Reagan, was another thing he did not mention explicitly in his statement.

Building Salt Lake reached out to Mayor Silvestrini for a comment, and he stood behind his public statement of recuse. 

“I have no financial interest or otherwise in this proposal, and would like to say I also have not added or discussed the matter with any staff or city council members before or after the vote on this matter,” Mayor Silvestrini said. 

We Love Millcreek, along with Scenic Utah, argue that there are still not enough additional public benefits to allow the additional digital signs, which were denied only three years ago.

The group also says that the city’s traffic data is incomplete and fails to account for the years the billboard was created at Millcreek Common, only pulling traffic data from years previous. This is due to a lack of enough data in the most recent years since the first sign was built.

Overall, this decision to rehash something that was voted on three years ago involves more than meets the eye. The original proposal only garnered support for one digital billboard, and now, another try only gets one more. Will there be another proposal in three years to add another digital sign spot?  

The code changes will allow for further discussion and public comment before anything is built, something the group We Love Millcreek sees as an opportunity to continue fighting these digital signs. 

The vote still gives the public and interested parties more opportunities to explore conflicts of interest and the city’s confusing justifications for redoing something they denied a few years ago. 

Less-bad choice  

Why is the city is rehashing its digital sign allowance?

Numerous council members and city staff, including Francis Lilly and Mike Winder, voiced their justification for approving this due to the provisions in the sign code that would allow the city to enter into agreements to remove static billboards in order to use the proposed digital sign. 

“This code does not require digital signs be built but allows for future trades, and those will be in front of the council at a later date if requested to be built,” said Councilmember Thom DeSirant when clarifying public questions. Lilly confirmed this in his presentation. 

“My solution is to be proactive rather than reactive, and an exchange to lease city-owned digital billboards to companies for the removal of owned billboards is the most effective method I can think of,” said Lilly. 

Even then, some members of the community voiced that they felt this reason to be sneaky and unethical by the city, bringing back something they already dealt with. 

“In 2021, we passed an ordinance to allow one sign instead of three, and it is coming back again because we are amending the sign ordinance. We are not being sneaky or unethical; it is us trying to entertain what our general plan suggests, which is a mechanism to remove several other billboards in the community. This is the way to achieve that,” said Councilmember Silvia Catten, defending the council’s actions. 

To further justify their solution, many councilors extolled the 40-year lease to ownership as a great solution to eventually remove billboards from the community. 

“There are people strictly opposed to digital billboards, and I understand that. At the end of the day, having an agreement with a timer is better than having them there indefinitely. Most are owned outright by the industry or have a right to refusal if their lease contract is challenged, Councilmember DeSirant pointed out in his discussion. 

So, in other words, build more billboards to be able to tear down others. 

In the end, the City Council surprised staff and community members by amending the code to allow only one additional digital sign instead of the original suggestion of two more to add to the one already built. The council also expressed disinterest in building one on Highland Drive.

Even with the new signage code, which focuses on many more things than just billboards, the placement or creation of the additional digital sign in downtown Millcreek is not decided. 

The new code only allows for the creation of one additional digital sign and lays out some rules for negotiations regarding removing other static billboards in the city. Until a proposal for additional signs is presented, the location of the new digital sign and the static billboards being removed in exchange for it is unknown and undecided. Nothing is official other than Millcreek now will allow one more digital sign in its city center. 

Building Salt Lake is the leading source of commercial real estate news in Utah. Sign up to get our free emails in your inbox. Get access to the site’s paid features by becoming a Member today.

Editor’s note: The original article mislabeled “Millcreek Common” as “Millcreek Commons” and “Francis Lilly” as “Francis Lily.”

Posted by Zeke Peters

Zeke Peters is a dual-masters student at the University of Utah studying Urban Planning and Public Administration. He works as a planner and designer in Salt Lake City. He currently resides in downtown Salt Lake and is from Austin, Minnesota, the birthplace of SPAM.