Proposition D - Mid-Market Special Sign District

Voter Guide
This measure appeared on the November 2009 San Francisco ballot.

What it does

Proposition D is an initiative ordinance that would permit general advertising signs on both sides of Market Street between Fifth and Seventh streets, and potentially on portions of Turk Street and Golden Gate Avenue. The intent is to use active signs as a means of attracting tourists, shoppers and residents to this neglected two-block section of Market Street that historically was known as the Bay Area’s theater district. The measure would affect 49 lots, nearly all of which face Market Street.

Billboard companies would be given approval from building owners and the local business district organization to place billboards. Owners who have an arts-related tenant on their ground floor would pay 20 percent of their net advertising revenues to the local business improvement district. Owners without such an arts-related tenant would pay 40 percent, which creates an incentive for owners to attract arts-related uses to the street.

New billboards would contain general advertising unrelated to the building or tenants. Such new billboards are now prohibited citywide. Prop. D would permit signs including rooftop signs, rotating signs, those moved by wind, signs that display multiple ads, signs with moving parts, video, digital signs, and signs that are directly or indirectly lighted. The measure places limits on illumination levels, and the signs’ height and angle to the buildings on which they are mounted. Each sign is limited to 500 square feet in area. For example, a sign might have dimensions of 10 feet by 50 feet. Many of the buildings that might have billboards are historic, and new billboards would not be permitted to affect historic features.

The Central Market Community Benefit District, composed of property owners and some neighborhood representatives, would administer the sign program, contract with billboard companies and receive the community portion of revenues from building owners. The CBD would encourage building owners to remove metal shutters from storefronts, to keep businesses lit until midnight, and to install active and illuminated signs in storefront windows.

After deducting administrative costs of up to 20 percent, the CBD would act as a grant-maker and distribute funds to provide community benefits: first to existing local youth arts education programs, then for the design and construction of a theater tickets booth in Hallidie Plaza. The CBD would decide how much to give to each beneficiary.

Why it is on the ballot

Prop. D was placed on the ballot by the collected signatures of registered voters. It would create an exemption to Proposition G, a measure passed in 2002 to prohibit new general advertising signs in San Francisco. Because Prop. G was approved at the ballot, this exemption must also be approved by ballot and cannot be dealt with legislatively.

Ballot fights over billboards have a long history in San Francisco. In the 1990s, the public voted against a proposal to erect large electronic billboards in Union Square. By 2002, new technology allowed billboards to be placed in more places more cheaply, which gave rise to Prop. G to ban new billboards. SPUR supported Prop. G, which passed with 79 percent of the vote. In 2007, 62 percent of voters supported Proposition K, a policy statement to limit advertisements on street furniture and city-owned buildings. SPUR opposed Prop. K because it threatened $15 million of annual bus shelter advertising income for Muni.


  • Economic incentives for owners to bring in arts-related businesses will increase the artistic and cultural vitality of the area.
  • The new sign area could provide some commercial revitalization of a run-down area.
  • Signs will illuminate a dark and somewhat dangerous section of Market Street at night and provide increased safety for residents and pedestrians.
  • The measure has a limited scope. It will affect only two blocks and does not pose a significant negative visual impact on the public realm.
  • This measure will help restore the historic “Great White Way” of theaters with bright marquees, and connect the public with the cultural value of the city’s architectural and artistic heritage.
  • In major cities around the world, billboards are an accepted part of the visual landscape and express the energy of the cities’ commercial activities.


  • The measure does not provide a comprehensive plan for renewal of this area of Market Street. Real improvements would require a new land-use plan, a redevelopment district or some other direct policy approach.
  • The visual space is a public good that should not be sold to private advertising companies. Whereas people who wish to avoid advertising can refrain from purchasing a magazine, watching television or surfing the Internet, cities cannot avoid advertising in the public realm. The City has an obligation to protect the public space from visual clutter.
  • Youth arts organizations that potentially could receive funding would have to apply for it, and they have not yet proposed specific uses for the funds– so the public benefit component of this measure has neither clear goals nor a timeline. Additionally, the City has little oversight of the money designated for these programs, and administrative expenses could be significant, further reducing the value of this measure for supporting youth arts education.
  • The second funding priority, for the design and construction of a theater ticket booth at Hallidie Plaza, would duplicate a similar facility at Union Square only five blocks away.
  • There are multiple buildings that are contributing to the lack of investment in this part of the Market Street area. They typically are of one or two stories, on narrow lots and in bad physical condition, and they often are vacant or support only marginal uses. They should be aggregated into larger parcels and redeveloped with more substantial, soundly constructed buildings. This is much less likely to happen if the owners can get a revenue stream simply by adding billboards above the existing structures, leaving the area in the same physical condition.
  • This measure could create a domino effect. Billboard companies or other districts might feel empowered to create similar zones.
  • Safety on these two blocks could be improved by simply adding more street lights. Brightly lighted billboards aren’t necessary.
  • Brightly-lit marquees on theater fronts are already permitted. The essence of the theater district could be restored without adding general advertising signs.

SPUR’s analysis

Although there is no guarantee that allowing increased advertising on these two blocks of Market Street will provide increases in commercial vitality or community health in this district, this measure is worth trying. Even though real revitalization of this district might be better served by initiating a new land-use plan or redevelopment district, the City has been trying for decades to enliven Market Street and nothing has changed. Abandoned storefronts continue to characterize this stretch of the street. The idea of having a small part of the city embrace bright, glitzy signs is accepted in other cities, and can provide an exciting public space. We think the limited scope and other restrictions placed on signs in the measure are sufficiently narrow, and we should give this approach a chance.

SPUR recommends a “Yes” vote on Proposition D.