Thursday, December 2, 2010

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

2013570347.html.jpgELLEN M. BANNER / THE SEATTLE TIME
Downtown Seattle looks glorious viewed from Elliott Bay.

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.

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