Lawsuit filed against city of Detroit for hundreds of illegal wall ads

City ordinance makes wall advertisements illegal, federal lawsuit says

DETROIT – Downtown and Midtown Detroit have become destination hot spots over the past few years, and advertisers want in on the action.

Anyone who has been downtown has seen many of the huge advertisements on the walls of more than 100 buildings. But the city has a long-standing ordinance that makes the practice illegal.

Now, a federal lawsuit has been filed to force the city to take action.

The wall advertisements are everywhere, and even though a letter went out more than a year ago telling owners to take them down, they're still up, and the business is bigger than ever.

The advertisements are big and bold, and all but three of them, which were grandfathered in, are illegal.

Hundreds of buildings with wall advertisements are in violation of a Detroit ordinance, which Local 4 legal expert Neil Rockind said is crystal clear.

"The ordinance itself says no signs," Rockind said. "'It shall be unlawful to erect a sign.' You can't get any more clear than that."

If they're illegal, why are they wall signs still all over Downtown Detroit? Activist Robert Davis said it's because this is a big-money business, and nobody is stopping it.

"They're bringing in and generating at least $100,000 a month, and you have to ask yourself, 'Who's profiting from these huge billboards?'" Davis said.

The Local 4 Defenders told viewers last March about the failure to enforce the law. A letter from City Council member Mary Sheffield said she knew about the issue since 2012.

The mayor's office insisted the problem would be resolved quickly. In September, a letter from building and safety director David Bell was sent to every building owner with an illegal sign, telling them to take the signs down.

"The letter from the city (tells) every building owner in that district that the signs are illegal and they have to come down because they are illegal," Rockind said.

Fast forward a year, and not only have the signs stayed up, there are more of them than ever before. Davis, who is no stranger to conspiracy theories or filing lawsuits under his nonprofit organization, A Felon's Crusade For Equality, has his own ideas. 

"You have a criminal enterprise going on right before your very eyes involving some of the most prominent individuals in the city of Detroit," Davis said.

He claims that Total Outdoor advertising collects large ad revenues and pays building owners to use their walls and former board chair of the Detroit regional chamberm Dennis Archer Jr., a large consulting fee.

"They've hired him and his Ignition Media group to basically be their buffer, who all them to illegally erect these huge billboard signs so they can make millions and millions of dollars," Davis said. "You have the mayor's office and the city departments totally ignoring it."

In the lawsuit obtained by the Defenders, Davis claimed the city is allowing the illegal activity in exchange for campaign contributions.

"You examine the public records that exist in the campaign finance," Davis said. "You have the mayor, as well as many members of the Detroit City Council, profiting from Dennis Archer Jr. and some of his associates."

Davis is asking the federal court to step in and put a stop to it.

"Under the Rico statue, you can sue civilly, so hopefully some law enforcement agencies can examine the record and see exactly the individuals that's violating the law," Davis said.

The lawsuit alleges selective enforcement, saying on the one hand, the city has aggressively went after Centre Park Bar for noise violations by writing tickets and taking them to court to evict them while turning its eyes on multiple illegal wall ads surrounding the Downtown Bar.

"They have not done anything in respect to suing Dennis Archer Jr. and Total Outdoor and Ignition Media," Davis said.

Rockind examined the lawsuit, saying he agrees the wall advertisements are illegal, but calling the allegations against Archer and the city overly aggressive.

"I don't know what evidence Mr. Davis has to support a lot of these claims," Rockind said. "I would suspect a lot of those claims end up on the cutting room floor once a federal judge gets his or her hands on it."

Archer and Total Outdoor advertising officials chose not to comment on the lawsuit. They said they will respond vigorously in court.

Sources told the Defenders that the city has been fining violators and has entered into consent agreements demanding the wall advertisements come down before Jan. 1.

It's unclear why it has taken 19 months since the original Defenders story to get compliance.

Davis said his lawsuit is intended to persuade the city to enforce all laws equally, sending a message to city leaders to insist that the wall ads come down or change the rules that forbid them.