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Houston City Council Approves Digital Kiosks Across Houston Despite Fierce Opposition

An IKE Smart City digital kiosk in Downtown San Antonio.

Houston City Council voted on Wednesday to approve the installation of at least 75 interactive kiosks on sidewalks and public areas over the next three years, a move that is expected to generate millions of dollars in much-needed revenue but which also faces sharp criticism.

The multilingual kiosks measure about 8 feet tall and will offer a variety of navigation, wayfinding, mass transit, event and activity information. Other features include free WiFi, an emergency call button and messaging features. There will also be listings for social and civic resources such as shelters, food banks and job opportunities.

They’ll also feature commercial advertising. The city of Houston will receive 42% of advertising revenue from the kiosks, which officials projected could reach between $35M and $50M over the course of the 12-year deal.

After robust discussion, city council members voted 10-7 in favor of the kiosks, with several members noting that they had received hundreds of emails, phone calls and text messages from constituents on the issue. 

Houston City Council also voted in favor of awarding the 12-year contract with two five-year renewal options to Ohio-based IKE Smart City LLC, a venture of Orange Barrel Media. The firm will design, fabricate, install, operate and support the interactive digital kiosks.

The city’s agenda item stated that up to 125 kiosks could be installed, but in public discussions a day earlier, Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said that the city would cap the number at 75. Turner also promised that council members, management districts and local businesses would have a say in where the signs are installed.

A man using an IKE Smart City digital kiosk in Cleveland.

The digital kiosks have faced fierce opposition from city residents and organizations such as Scenic Houston, which is focused on preserving and enhancing Houston’s visual environment. The organization launched a petition against the kiosks, arguing that they essentially amount to billboards.

“What we're doing is basically approving mini-billboards on the sidewalks,” TBG Partners President Bill Odle told Bisnow. Odle, a landscape architect, serves as the first vice chair of Scenic Houston and will become chairman of the organization in 2022.

At one time, Houston had more than 10,000 billboards across the city. To combat the visual clutter, Houston City Council passed an ordinance in 1980 banning the construction of new billboards. That inventory had fallen to 1,309 in 2019, according to Scenic Houston. 

Odle said that by allowing the kiosks, the city of Houston may have opened itself up to legal challenges against the ordinance.

“I'm not an attorney. But ... I promise you there's some attorneys that are probably licking their chops right now, saying that just opened up a crack in the defense of what they actually are,” Odle said.

The argument that the kiosks are actually billboards is partially based on their size. At 8 feet tall, the kiosks would not be operating at what Odle deems “human scale.” However, the screens, including advertisements, would be visible to vehicle traffic.

“They've just wrapped wayfinding into a billboard. That's honestly what they've done,” Odle said.