San Diego residents can expect to see a lot of gigantic “wrapping” ads for buildings take over the downtown waterfront during Comic-Con, in part because city officials failed to close an unusual loophole that encourages illegal ads.
Both critics and supporters of the colossal movie and TV show ads say they hoped San Diego officials would use Comic-Con’s two-year hiatus during the pandemic to close the gap by creating firm city policy.
While the Harbor District allows the building to wrap advertisements on land it controls west of Harbor Drive and Pacific Highway, the city formally prohibits — but essentially allows — them on the rest of the waterfront.
City rules say that wraps are not allowed under any circumstances, but the city charges fines that are a fraction of what advertisers pay buildings to run ads. This makes it a financial no-brainer for buildings to break the law.
Ad advocates 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 in July.
They argue that the closure announcements are part of the exciting commotion that makes San Diego a different place during Comic-Con, and that there’s no danger of the waterfront becoming gaudy like Las Vegas if the ads are banned for the rest of the year.
Critics say the city should drastically increase the fines so they are large enough to make it financially prohibitive for buildings to break the law by allowing such advertisements.
They argue that the ads are a visual pest that makes the waterfront look like a circus. And they warn that allowing them during Comic-Con is a slippery slope that can bring ads all summer weekend — or even more often.
A spokesperson for Mayor Todd Gloria said this week that the mayor “has no intention of making any changes this year.” The spokeswoman, Rachel Laing, did not explain.
Gloria’s predecessor Kevin Faulconer essentially widened the loophole in 2019 when he directed the code enforcement team to reduce the fines buildings would face for violating the ad ban.
He told officers to switch from civil penalties, which can be as high as $10,000 a day, to administrative citations, which are a maximum of $1,000 a day.
This reduced 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 construction listings on city-controlled land.
The Hard Rock Hotel, Petco Park, Tin Fish and other businesses have run wrapped ads in the past and paid city fines.
Residents of some private residential buildings say their owners’ associations were approached this spring to run wrapping ads for the first time.
Kim Wallace-Ross, the city’s deputy assistant director who oversees enforcement of the code, agreed this week that it is unusual to have a city ban on books that city officials know will be repeatedly violated.
“Companies get paid a lot of money for ads 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 run the ads during the full 10 days that count as Comic-Con season – the Friday before the event until the last Sunday of the event.
Despite the ads being highly visible, Wallace-Ross said enforcement is still reactive and occurs only when someone complains.
“You’re going to have one person calling in five or six complaints at the same time,” she said of the final ad complaints.
Brian Schoenfisch, leader of the city’s urban division that oversees the downtown area, said there are no city policy changes in the legislative process.
“The city’s municipal code doesn’t allow that — period,” he said. “That’s it. They’re not allowed.”
Wallace-Ross said the city has the power to levy higher fines for repeat violators of the rules banning wrapped ads, but she declined to say whether that happens. She said the highest fine ever imposed for an ad violation was more than $30,000.
Pamela Wilson of Scenic San Diego, a group that opposes wrap and billboard ads, said her group has not focused on wrap ads since it persuaded the Port Commission in 2018 to drop plans to start allowing wrap ads. the whole year.
Port District spokeswoman Brianne Page said this week that no port policy changes are coming this year.
“While we anticipate that some buildings will be closed when Comic-Con returns in July, we have not yet received any entries,” she said. “Some of our tenants – usually hotels – near the Convention Center hire advertisers to have building wraps before and during Comic-Con.”
The port also has an agreement with Outfront Media to install construction wraps during Comic-Con at the Bayfront Garage that serves the Convention Center and the Hilton Bayfront Hotel.
The Marriott Marquis, Manchester Grand Hyatt and Bayfront Garage had final announcements for the special issue of Comic-Con in November. No buildings in the city had ads in November, Wallace-Ross said.
There were no wrap announcements in the city or port property in July 2020 or July 2021 because there was no Comic-Con in any year.
Gary Smith, president of the Downtown Residents Group, said most residents aren’t too bothered by the ads, mainly because they’re restricted to Comic-Con and national events like the All-Star Game.
“I don’t think anyone really cares if it goes for a couple of weeks and falls off,” he said.
That could change if wrap ads expand to almost every summer weekend, which seems to make sense to advertisers because the waterfront is flooded with tourists during these times.
“That’s the slippery slope, but so far it hasn’t happened,” Smith said. “We would make a lot of noise.”