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Jul 17

Environmental Irony & Ypsilanti

Comments (4) 10:15 AM posted by admin |

At Tuesday night’s Ypsilanti City Council meeting, Council voted unanimously to allow Adams Outdoor Advertising to erect a giant digital billboard at the I-94 entrance to the City. The digital billboard has a carbon footprint similar to that of Poland.

There are several key issues here at play with the first being the deal itself.

The City owns the land. It’s ours. It belongs to the people. However, in this deal, two third-party organizations hammered out a deal and brought it before Council. We have very few bargaining chips in this City, but when we put our hands on one, we fumble it away. In this case, the deal that was worked out gives between $26K and $39K worth of advertising time to Eastern Michigan University and the Ypsilanti Convention and Visitor’s Bureau. Technically the advertising time will come to the City, but since we don’t pay cops and firemen with advertising time, we will give the ad time to EMU, an organization that doesn’t pay taxes.

We did this for two reasons. The first is that we’ll get money. Despite reports on the radio, the City will get $35K a year in lease for the land. This has 10% escalators every 5 years. We will also get personal property tax on the sign. The General Fund share will between $5K and $6K. The second reason we did it was because it was a lousy deal but we’d aldready shown our hand. We had no leverage. When this came before Council last year, I asked that we negotiate a deal that cut out payments to non-taxpaying entities. That request fell on deaf ears, and we have what we have. As with a lot of the deals we’ve made lately, it was the best deal we were going to get.

The second key issue here is the one of environmental irony.

Here we are a city trying to evolve from “The City that Works” of yester-year into a “green” community. What’s so crazy is that even though we have solar panels on the Ypsilanti Food Co-Op, even though we won grants for putting solar hot water on the Rutherford Pool and solar panels on City Hall, and even though we have tons of community gardens that try and promote sustainability, we authorized the installation of a monsterous, energy-sucking billboard. The only thing worse might have been my idea of parking a 1972 Oldsmobile 442 with a brick on its gas pedal on the land and having it idle all day long.

Perhaps with our free advertising we can run ads that say, “Ypsilanti: Going Green For The Future.” Dave Strenski has a lot of work ahead of him if we are going to offset this carbon footprint.

The final key issue is that of our ideals.

Like it or not, we sold our souls in this deal. We decided that money was more important than principle. It was a parcel of land that had generated only $10 since 1824 for the City. (The reason for this is that we had a lease with EMU and CVB and they just haven’t paid us the $1 per year for the past 13 years. Let’s partner with THEM.) The point is we had a chance to make some money to pay for services (hopefully Water Street debt payments) and we took it regardless of the cost to our image.

A friend of mine recently approached me and asked me to investigate banning plastic shopping bags in Ypsilanti like they’ve done in Malibu, CA and China. The person argued this would send a message to potential wind turbine generator manufacturers or other green companies looking to locate in Ypsilanti that we get it and we support the new green world order. It’s brilliant reasoning, but we took our thirty pieces of silver and turned our principles over to Pontius Pilate because we can really use the money now. I struggled with this decision, but still voted yes.

The corollary to this is that we also approved a Water Street Master Plan amendment that limits the options for what may be built on the site. I seemed to piss off the City Planner when I asked why we wouldn’t want proposals for manufacturing at the site. His line of reasoning was that heavy manufacturing is not aligned with the project’s goals and asked if paying the debt the number one priority for the project.

He’s right. Sort of.

Are the goals obsolete? Two developers couldn’t make similar zoning work. The majority block of Council still seems wedded to the Joseph A. Freed plan despite its failings. I want something that people can be proud of in 100 years. I do, but I’m not sure that can still be the overall priority now unless we get the community behind subsidizing this project with their tax dollars. It’s an interesting philosophical question that is certain to cost of millions and millions of dollars.

Our green principles were sold for $40K a year, but our development ideals are worth $1.5M a year. Try explaining that one to an angry constituent.

This whole selling of ideals isn’t over. A contract for the digital billboard project will be brought before Council in the upcoming weeks wherein we will sell out our First Amendment principles when we ban free speech on the billboard.


  • One digital billboard consumes 397,486 kWh/year (we will have two)
  • The carbon footprint of a digital billboard is the equivalent of 49 traditional billboards or 13.39 homes
  • One digital billboard outputs 108.41 tons/year of carbon dioxide
  • A standard size digital billboard contains 449,280 light-emitting diodes

(Source: Scenic America, safeguarding America’s natural beauty and community character.)

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  1. Comment by Steve Pierce
    July 18, 2008 @ 2:46 am


  2. Comment by maryd
    July 19, 2008 @ 7:31 am

    Why we have to vote on Tuesday August 5. You need other like-minded colleagues on council that are not continually giving away the store. We only have so much left to give away…

  3. Comment by leightonmann
    July 24, 2008 @ 10:56 pm

    Driving the semi over the last few months, I’ve seen these things popping up all over the country. Ypsi’ll look high tech for about 12 minutes.

    It’s ironic that LEDs themselves are very low consumption lights, but their relatively inexpensive operating costs give billboard companies an excuse / tool to distract drivers even more.

    Household LED bulbs are the next green wave (last longer and are more efficient / less dangerous than compact fluorescents), but right now they are very expensive. Maybe we can get the sign companies to use their supplier connections to offer Ypsi residents a deep discount on the $40 bulbs?

  4. Comment by John
    August 4, 2008 @ 11:12 am

    Yes, but it will be a glowing 12 minutes. Besides, the bulbs will eventually go dead – and not get replaced on time. So the Carbon footprint will become more like Andorra than Poland.

    Don’t those new bulbs have Mercury in them? I like Carbon better than Mercury.

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