Kiosks, Cameras, and Casinos: Why Dallas Shouldn’t Sell Itself for a Quick Buck

You’ve seen them. They’ve got Anthony and Opie’s smug visages plastered on them. They’re cylindrical monsters gobbling up the tiny wedges of concrete we call sidewalks in Dallas. And they’re coming to a sidewalk near you.

The advertising kiosk fiasco started last fall, when the council was asked to approve a contract with CBS that would let them put advertising kiosks up in our city for 20 years, paying the city a total of $22M over that time. I objected to the program at a committee briefing and at the subsequent council meeting, arguing that our sidewalks are already cluttered with light poles and traffic signals, signs and sandwich boards. We didn’t need yet another obstruction. I asked for a two-week delay to address those concerns.

At the following council meeting, I raised my concerns again and was assured that the kiosks would have “7 foot of clearance.” To me, that meant there would be 7 feet of space left on the sidewalk after the kiosk was in place. That sounded reasonable, because that meant that the kiosks couldn’t go on the itsy bitsy sidewalks in most of Dallas, but only on wide sidewalks – downtown, primarily — that could accommodate a kiosk plus have 7 more feet left over.

When I saw the first kiosks going up in the middle of a six-foot sidewalk with no 7-foot clearance, I contacted city staff and was told that there was no 7-foot rule. What??! I pulled the tape of the council meeting to make sure I didn’t mis-hear something. Nope. I had been assured there was “7 feet of clearance.” When I asked city staff about this, I was told I had been given the wrong information at the council meeting, and there was no 7-foot rule in the contract.

The Mayor has requested a briefing for the city council on October 4 to explain the kiosk program and discuss our options. Our contract with CBS allows the city to get out of the contract with no penalty, other than paying back any money that has already been paid by CBS. I will be pushing for us to get out of this contract immediately and remove all of the kiosks.

We don’t need these kiosks. They are ugly billboards cluttering our sidewalks. We’re trying so hard to become an urban, pedestrian-friendly city. To allow this visual clutter to be placed in areas already lacking in sidewalks was a bad decision that needs to be undone.

So what do these kiosks have to do with “cameras and casinos”? Easy money. The pattern I see is that when the city sees fast cash waved before its eyes, it jumps on it like a drowning man struggling for a life preserver.

Red-light cameras: easy money. But is the technology proven to save lives and improve public safety, like it says on the box? The studies I’ve seen contradict these claims, but we nonetheless moved forward with a contract for the cameras, despite my “no” vote. The city will install the cameras at 60 intersections, bringing in an estimated $8M. (I was successful in getting staff to undertake a one-year comparative review of the program assessing accident types and severity, pre- and post-camera.)

Casinos in Reunion Arena: easy money. But what about the studies that show that tax windfalls from casinos rarely meet proponents optimistic projections? And that crime and poverty increase when casinos come to town? And that the “revenue” casinos bring in doesn’t offset these costs?

I could be wrong on both of these issues. Red-light cameras may end up saving lives and casinos may be fun, family-friendly revenue-generators that put Dallas on the map.

I’m just proposing that every time “easy money” is waved in front of us at City Hall, that we don’t become so hypnotized that we’re willing to sell out our city for a few lousy bucks, at the expense of the long-term welfare of Dallas.

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Economic Development Committee: Kiosk Ad Program

At the Aug. 10, 2005 City Council meeting, I moved to defer consideration of the proposed Kiosk Advertising Program to ensure that the kiosks are pedestrian-friendly. The Council decided to send the matter back to the Economic Development Committee and then revisit the matter at the Aug. 24 City Council meeting.

We discussed the issue at the Economic Development Committee meeting today. Since last Wednesday, City staff has met with the proposed vendor, Viacom, and they have come up with a good compromise that addresses my concerns.

On the two advertising sides of the kiosk, Viacom will put additional verbiage to indicate that the kiosks have maps and public information on the other side. This will not affect the amount of money that Viacom is paying the City.

This compromise will make the kiosks more helpful to pedestrians and not just huge cylindrical billboards that take up valuable sidewalk space.

I also spoke with Scott Reynolds from Reynolds Outdoor (the company that is responsible for the private kiosks in Downtown), and they will also be placing verbiage on their kiosks to indicate that maps and information are located on the kiosk. I appreciate Reynolds Outdoor taking this step to further improve the kiosks for our Downtown pedestrians.

I am very pleased with the result of the City staff’s efforts with Viacom, and appreciate their hard work.

ACTION: The Committee moved to present the program to the Council on August 24, 2005.

Council Vote: Kiosk Advertising Program

Today the city council was presented with 20-year contract that would allow a private company to put up advertising kiosks in commercial and mixed-use areas of the city. In return, the City would get at least $17.5M (net present dollars) over 20 years, $5M of which is upfront money, and $1.5M of which would be for improvements like benches and trashcans. The City would also get to decide the location of the kiosks, and would be allowed to use one side of the three-sided kiosk to post public information, such as city maps.

Most of these kiosks will be placed in Downtown, Uptown, and Deep Ellum. I asked my colleagues to postpone consideration for two weeks. My concern with this proposal is that we’re creating yet another obstruction in our already narrow and obstructed urban sidewalks. Go down the sidewalks along McKinney Avenue in Uptown and they’re narrow and too often obstructed with utility poles, street signs, and restaurant seating. The same is true in parts of Deep Ellum.

The City has done a terrible job of planning for and creating a quality urban environment that is pedestrian-friendly. If we’re going to add to the obstructions our pedestrians encounter, we’ve got to give them a commensurate benefit. That means making it easy for pedestrians to access the maps and public information.

The proposal today would’ve taken away the city’s control over which side of the kiosk we put the city information on. If you’ve seen the kiosks that are already on Downtown sidewalks, they look like giant billboards, they don’t make it obvious that they contain any public information, and the the maps aren’t on the most convenient or obvious side for pedestrians. (Note that these kiosks are on private property and subject to different regulations.)

ACTION: I moved to postpone the decision on this proposal for two weeks to give us time to work with the proposed vendor on making the kiosks more pedestrian-friendly.

(PASSED __ – 1)