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San Diegans can expect to see plenty of gigantic building “wrap” ads take over the downtown waterfront during Comic-Con, partly because city officials haven’t closed an unusual loophole that encourages the illegal ads.

Both critics and supporters of the colossal wrap ads for movies and TV shows say they had hoped San Diego officials would use the two-year Comic-Con hiatus during the pandemic to close the loophole by creating a firm city policy.

While the Port District allows the building wrap ads on land it controls west of Harbor Drive and Pacific Highway, the city formally prohibits them — but essentially allows them — on the rest of the waterfront.

City rules say the wraps are not allowed under any circumstances, but the city charges fines that are a fraction of what advertisers pay the buildings to run the ads. That makes it a financial no-brainer for the buildings to break the law.

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Supporters of the ads would like to see the city make them legal, but only during Comic-Con and a few extra days on either side of the popular event held locally each July.

They argue that the wrap ads are part of the exciting hoopla that transforms San Diego into a different place during Comic-Con, and that there’s no danger of the waterfront becoming gaudy like Las Vegas if the ads are prohibited the rest of the year.

Critics say the city should sharply increase the fines so that they are large enough to make it financially prohibitive for buildings to break the law by allowing such ads.

They argue that the ads are visual blight that make the waterfront look like a circus. And they warn that allowing them during Comic-Com is a slippery slope that could bring the ads during every summer weekend — or even more often.

A spokesperson for Mayor Todd Gloria said this week that the mayor has “no intention of taking changes up this year.” The spokesperson, Rachel Laing, did not provide an explanation.

Gloria’s predecessor, Kevin Faulconer, essentially widened the loophole in 2019 when he directed code enforcement staff to lower the fines buildings would face for violating the wrap ad ban.

He told the officers to shift away from civil penalties, which can be up to $10,000 per day, toward administrative citations, which are a maximum of $1,000 per day.

That lowered the total fines collected by the city from $65,723 in 2018 to just $7,500 in 2019 — despite there being roughly the same number of building wrap ads on land controlled by the city.

The Hard Rock Hotel, Petco Park, the Tin Fish and other businesses have displayed wrap ads in the past and paid city fines.

Residents of some private residential buildings say their homeowners’ associations have been approached this spring to display wrap ads for the first time.

Kim Wallace-Ross, a city assistant deputy director overseeing code enforcement, agreed this week that it’s unusual to have a city prohibition on the books that city officials know will be repeatedly violated.

“Businesses get a lot of money for the advertisements during Comic-Con,” she said. “$25,000 in fines is a drop in the bucket for some places.”

Some advertisers pay buildings more than $100,000 to display the ads for the entire 10 days that are considered Comic-Con season — the Friday before the event through the event’s final Sunday.

Despite the ads being highly conspicuous, Wallace-Ross said enforcement is still reactive and occurs only when someone complains.

“You will have one person call in five or six complaints at one time,” she said of wrap ad complaints.

Brian Schoenfisch, leader of the city’s urban division that oversees downtown, said there are no changes to the city’s policy in the legislative pipeline.

“The city’s municipal code does not allow these — period,” he said. “That’s it. They are not allowed.”

Wallace-Ross said the city does have the power to charge higher fines to repeat offenders of the rules that prohibit wrap ads, but she declined to say whether that happens. She said the highest fine ever levied for a wrap ad violation was more than $30,000.

Pamela Wilson of Scenic San Diego, a group that opposes wrap ads and billboards, said her group hasn’t focused on the wrap ads since persuading the Port Commission in 2018 to abandon plans to begin allowing wrap ads year-round.

Port District spokesperson Brianne Page said this week that no changes to the port’s policy are coming this year.

“While we anticipate some buildings will be wrapped as Comic-Con returns in full this July, we haven’t yet received any applications,” she said. “Some of our tenants — typically hotels — near the Convention Center contract with advertisers to have building wraps leading up to and during Comic-Con.”

The port also has an agreement with Outfront Media to install building wraps during Comic-Con on the Bayfront Garage that serves the Convention Center and the Hilton Bayfront Hotel.

The Marriott Marquis, the Manchester Grand Hyatt and the Bayfront Garage had wrap ads for Comic-Con Special Edition in November. No city buildings had wrap ads in November, Wallace-Ross said.

There were no wrap ads on either city or port property in July 2020 or July 2021 because there was no Comic-Con either year.

Gary Smith, president of the Downtown Residents Group, said most residents aren’t too bothered by the wrap ads, primarily because they are restricted to Comic-Con and national events like the All-Star Game.

“I don’t think anybody really cares if it’s for a couple of weeks and it comes down,” he said.

That could change if the wrap ads expand to nearly every summer weekend, which would seem to make sense for advertisers because the waterfront is flooded with tourists during those times.

“That’s the slippery slope, but so far that hasn’t happened,” Smith said. “We would make a lot of noise.”

Source: This post first appeared on sandiegouniontribune.com

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