Sunday, December 5, 2010

Comments on Giant Illuminated Signs due Monday Afternoon, 5.PM

A reader writes:

Dear Councilmember Conlin:

Thank you for the response to my recent e-mail on this topic.

The present proposal may indeed be limited -- perhaps tailor-made for just one company.  But once it's in place, innocent little amendments are sure to follow --just a little increase in the size of the signs that are permitted, a lower limit on the number of employees, a change in the way employees are counted (sort of like the "job creation" story), a modest change in the minimum height requirement (let's just simplify & make it 50 feet, rather than 500).  These sorts of things are easily slipped through, once the main controversy has been forgotten.

It's disturbing to think that economic development depends on lighted signs on downtown buildings.  This does not bode well for the success of such a marginal business.  (The argument IS, is it not, that without the sign, Russell won't thrive.)  It's also disturbing to think that Seattle City government is so eager to
play this race-to-the-bottom game.  One has to wonder what else the Mayor & his staff have promised to this firm, & what they will promise to the next one that they steal from some other city.

Yours truly,

Federation Editor's note: 
Comments on Giant Illuminated Signs due Monday Afternoon, Decemer 6, 5.PM

Don't vandalize Seattle's skyline with unsightly illuminated signs

The Seattle City Council is considering changes to its rules about signs that could mar the city's skyline with giant illuminated signs. Guest columnist Jeffrey Karl Ochsner argues the city should preserve the sense of the city's civic identity apparent under current sign rules.
Special to The Times

THE city of Seattle may be poised to approve an ordinance that will permanently deface the downtown skyline. A Nov. 6 Seattle Times editorial noted that unnamed "dignitaries" were amenable to rewriting the Seattle Municipal Code to allow Russell Investments to put giant illuminated signs at the top of their building, the former WaMu Tower.
A City Council committee will consider proposed revisions to the sign-code portion of the Seattle Municipal Code at a public hearing Dec. 7. A council vote on the issue may occur before Christmas.
Adding giant illuminated signs to the former WaMu Tower will mar the downtown skyline. The Tower is nearly dead center in the skyline. The bright lights will make the Russell Investments sign the primary focus of the skyline. The state outlawed billboards in 1961, but the Russell Investments sign will turn the downtown skyline into a giant billboard.
The proposed changes are a shocking give-away of our skyline. This kind of special favor for a special interest undermines the integrity of Seattle governance. Allowing giant illuminated signs will blight the skyline that Seattle has protected for the last half century. The proposed changes contravene our Comprehensive Plan.
The sign code currently allows downtown signs for business tenants only below 65 feet. Hotels and public buildings may have signs above 65 feet because these signs help us find places for public access and use.
The proposed changes would allow any tenant downtown with more than 200,000 square feet of space to have giant illuminated signs near the tops of downtown buildings. Signs could be up to 324 square feet on four sides of a building, or up to 648 square feet on two sides of a building more than 500 feet tall. Giant illuminated signs up to 18-by-36 feet or 12-by-48 feet or 10-by-64 feet would be allowed.
The downtown skyline is a tremendous asset forming a memorable image within our natural setting. Victor Steinbrueck called attention to the extraordinary value of our skyline nearly 50 years ago in "Seattle Cityscape," writing, "Seen from west of the bay, at a small lookout park on the tip of Duwamish Head, the central business district provides a thrilling panorama by day and by night."
The city of Seattle Comprehensive Plan "Culture Resource" section cites the skyline as central to our civic identity: "Over time, Seattle has acquired many features that people have come to identify with the city. Among them are ... the downtown skyline, distinguished by landmarks such as the Smith Tower." But now, with little public discussion, this will be discarded and forgotten.
The Municipal Code currently restricts signs at the tops of downtown buildings to protect our skyline for the enjoyment of everyone. The Comprehensive Plan specifically calls for "reducing visual clutter" and "limiting the signs at the tops of buildings," yet this is being ignored.
If approved, the proposed changes will set an appalling precedent. What happens when a tenant with 150,000 or 100,000 square feet asks for equal treatment? The Russell Investments signs open the door to untold visual clutter on our skyline.
The code changes undermine Seattle's claim to be a sustainable city. Giant illuminated advertising signs will consume energy for commercial advertising, contributing nothing to the community.
Seattle City Council must recognize how appalling the proposed sign-code revisions are. The integrity of the Seattle Municipal Code and the Comprehensive Plan is at stake.
After a half-century of treasuring our Seattle skyline, why is the city poised to allow it now to be vandalized? The skyline belongs to all of us. It should not be given away.
Jeffrey Karl Ochsner is a professor of architecture at the University of Washington.

Seattle Sign Code Amendment

The City of Seattle is considering amending its sign code to allow building signage above 65 feet for purposes other than wayfinding or public buildings.  These signs would be limited to tenants leasing over 200,000 square feet.

This change is being made to allow Russell Investments (which has just moved to Seattle) to place a 1200+ square foot sign on the former WAMU Center building.

Public Hearing: Tuesday Dec 7, 2pm, City Hall Council Chambers
Letters: need to be received by Monday Dec 6, 5pm (email, fax ok)

Talking Points
1.     There sign code currently has an exception process for applying for this type of sign.  It includes consultation with the Design Commission. Why isn’t that satisfactory, especially if there is only one applicant (Russell Investments)?

2.     The City has great difficulty monitoring and enforcing the current sign code for signs below 65 feet.  DPD is cutting staff that manages sign permitting and enforcement.  With these changes, what will keep these types of advertising signs from proliferating as well?

3.     Lease agreements are private contracts.  How will city monitor lease arrangements? What if the amount of space leased declines below the threshold? How will the City even know this? And if the leased area decreases below the threshold, will the tenant be made to take the sign down? 

4.     It seems that a deal was made over a year ago to allow this sign.  With a change this dramatic to what is essentially everyone’s skyline, shouldn’t this have been a more public decision making    process?

1.     Signs above 65 feet have been reserved for wayfinding and public benefit.  What is the Public Benefit for allowing corporate advertising signs? Companies are private places, and are not the same as public destinations or hotels.

2.     The skyline is composed of and defined by architecture, not signs. We have a skyline recognized throughout the world.  Commercial branding will mar the character of our skyline, the 10th most photographed skyline according to Getty Images.

3.     The design review process is very rigorous for downtown buildings. It is part of our Comprehensive Plan’s downtown policies.  Why are we not including a rigorous design review for signs which will be many hundreds of square feet in size and visible for miles?

4.     We are spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on a design for our Central Waterfront, but consideration of the how the skyline itself looks has been abandoned.

5.     What will keep this from being the first sign for a gradual proliferation of signs on many more downtown buildings?  What about companies that lease less than 200,000 sq ft?   Or companies that are long associated with Seattle?  What assurances do we have that companies that own their building won’t want to display their name and logo?  Or that multiple tenants would want to display signage?

1.     Signs of this size and placement are clearly meant for advertising purposes.  We are already faced with a proliferation of advertising in our lives.  Our skyline should not be used as another place to hang corporate names and logos. 

2.     Seattle has a long history of controlling advertising and billboards, and this is a bad precedent which opens a new outlet for the placement of advertising signs.

3.     This change will in effect “brand” our skyline and the city with the name of a single company (Russell Investments) which has just arrived in Seattle.

4.     Cities around the US and the world are trying to reverse the trends of advertising signage on their skyline (such as Pittsburgh - 

1.     This is ostensibly being done to help promote business and to attract businesses to Seattle.  But companies do not choose a city because they can put a sign on their building - they seek quality of place.  Seattle is desirable because of its aesthetics and natural beauty. 

2.     The net return to the city for this is virtually nothing.  The stadium naming right at least generated significant money for the city.  The permit fees for this type of advertising should reflect market rates.  The city has just taken measures to ensure that street meter parking fees match market rate.  This advertising should pay market rate fees to the city as well.

3.     Successful businesses do not need big signs, and not having signs on our buildings doesn’t make Seattle any less “open for business”. 

4.     Cities that allow signage have not fared any better in lease rates or business retention.

1.     The Seattle sign code is decades out of date - it is too weak and flawed in many ways.  It needs a major overhaul. 

2.     The City has not established clear and enforceable standards for signs of this type.   The current legislation is written specifically for one sign and is flawed, and it is too restrictive for other companies that are supposedly eligible for signs based on their current lease agreements.

3.     We should create a citizen task force (such as the Pedestrian or Parks Advisory Boards) to define how the downtown sign code should be revised.  There are people with the appropriate skills and interest to make this happen.

4.     Building codes and standards (such as LEED) are moving to control and reduce ambient light from buildings and signs because of negative effects on humans and birds, energy consumption, and light pollution impacting the night sky.


A reader writes: Re: ZONING CODE "UPDATE" - Illuminated Signs on Buildings  

I see several problems with the proposal to relax the City Code regulating illuminated signs on buildings.  For openers it would be of benefit only to large firms and landlords.  Small businesses would be put at a competitive disadvantage.  That is both unfair and misguided since small to midsize retail businesses are already having a hard time making a go of it, especially in downtown Seattle.   What is the justification for favoring the big guys?   Meanwhile the City's argument that such signs help people find their way around town is hard to take seriously.  The sign would be so high up nobody walking or driving nearby would be able to see it from street level.   Nor could it be seriously argued the building is hard to find.   In fact it is one of the most visible and prominent buildings in the city, not that Russell Investments needs the advertising.   Last I checked their clients are primarily other investment firms, large trusts, and mutual fund companies, very few of which are even located in Seattle.   I don't know if they have any walk-up retail customers.   If that weren't enough, the sign would be most visible at night when the building isn't even open.   

This looks like just another sweetheart deal where City Hall does a favor for a large company.  Don't get me wrong, I'm glad Russell Investment moved to Seattle, but they sure don't need special treatment from the City.  They already got a steal when they bought the building for a fraction of what WAMU paid for it.   The City ought to think about what other tall buildings will be turned into free advertising if this ordinance goes through.   If City Hall wants to help the downtown landlords and developers the way to do it is through efficient public services down at street level.  Allowing advertising on the top of highrises won't do anything to fill vacant buildings, but better police and social services might make downtown a little more attractive to the small retailers and service businesses that are struggling. 

By the way, before the City further relaxes the sign ordinance they ought to take a look at what happened after they allowed bright moving-image signs.   If you want to see one take a look at the large sign on First Ave S. just south of the Stadiums.  You can't miss it, its attached to a strip club and runs provocative ads 24 hours per day.  Yup, just what the city needed to improve its family-friendly image and bring in neighborhood retail.   Whoever is coming up with these changes to the sign ordinance must live in some other neighborhood, or maybe they live in a suburban city that protects neighborhood interests by carefully regulating illuminated signs.   The proposed change for Russell Investment is unnecessary and is another step down a slippery slope.   Allowing big illuminated advertising on buildings is not the answer to any of Seattle's problems.    

Charles Prestrud

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