Thursday, December 9, 2010

Seattle Skyline and Signs - Nick Licata's Urban Politics #304

December 8, 2010
By City Councilmember Nick Licata
With assistance from my Legislative Aide, Lisa Herbold
The question has been raised: “Do we want large illuminated signs on the top of our downtown buildings advertizing their tenants?” A proposal before the Council could specifically allow Russell Investments, which recently moved from Tacoma, to place a sign of up to 1080 sq. ft near the top of what had previously been the Mutual of Washington Tower.
Yesterday (12/8/10) the City’s Department of Planning and Development (DPD) briefed Council President Conlin’s Regional Development and Sustainability Committee on the proposed CB 117065. It would amend the City’s sign code to allow businesses leasing 200,000 square feet or more in a single downtown building to have illuminated identification signs on the exterior walls of that building.  Businesses in building less than 500 feet tall could install up to four signs, each up to 324 square feet.  Businesses in buildings taller than 500 feet would have an additional option of installing two signs of up to 648 square feet each.  One such business, Russell Investments, proposes another amendment that would allow a single sign of 1080 square feet, with 10 foot high letters, allowing a sign to stretch across 108 feet.
The DPD review of potential applicants shows that currently 7 downtown tenants would lease 200,000 square feet or more in a single downtown building and would qualify to install such signs.  Opponents of the legislation point out that under the current conditions only Russell would benefit since the other tenants would face other hurdles to take advantage of the law.
Twenty-one people testified at the Committee’s public hearing, all but five were opposed to the proposal. The Greater Seattle Chamber and the Downtown Seattle Association came out in favor of the legislation, while a number of small business owners, architects, urban designers and market advertisers were opposed.
Those in favor argued that illuminated corporate logos on our tallest buildings would help Seattle’s economy, which has lost 20,000 jobs to this region in the last decade. Meanwhile Bellevue, which allows these types of signs on their buildings, although only on the sides of buildings facing I-405, has gained 2 million sq. ft. of office space during this period.  The head of the Downtown Seattle Association asked what are the opponents of this measure trying to protect? The skyline is man-made and constantly changing, it is not a thing of nature. And lastly an argument was made that allowing company names to glow at night on our buildings will attract major new businesses to Seattle.
The Washington Trust for Historic Preservation wrote that the “current sixty-five foot height limit on signage plays an important role in Seattle’s sense of place. Seattleites and visitors alike enjoy an uncluttered skyline relatively free from advertising. Tall buildings are recognizable for their form, massing, and details, allowing the architecture to define the experience rather than a corporate logo.”  For this reason, photos of Seattle’s skyline are the 10th most requested of a city according to Getty Images. Further, about 25 members of the University of Washington School of Architecture faculty wrote to tell us that “the proposal to allow 648 square foot lighted signs at the request of a single company which recently moved to Seattle ignores the Comprehensive Plan, overturns a half century of treasuring and protecting the downtown skyline and betrays any claims to sustainability.”
We are very fortunate that Russell chose to move to Seattle and we certainly want them to feel welcome.  It is very unfortunate if Russell was given the impression that such a change in Seattle’s skyline would be a minor matter.  A recent study by the Seattle Chamber of Commerce found that the most significant reason cited by companies and their employees to be in Seattle is our regional beauty and our relationship to the natural environment.  Would adding logos to our skyline add or detract from that environment?
I believe amending the sign ordinance, at least at this time, is not merited because the basic thrust of our current sign code has always been to permit signs that attract and invite rather than demand the public’s attention. Those signs that we do allow above 65 ft have been confined to way-finding purposes, such as locating hotels or public buildings.  Our Comprehensive Plan’s Urban Design Policies for Downtown “generally discourage signs not oriented to persons at the street level” and to “limit signs on the upper floors of building intended to be seen from a distance.”  Before we change the sign code in contravention to our decades of planning and design we should first determine whether the current code permits an exemption. DPD has granted exemptions under the currents sign code in the past for large signs on Pacific Place.
Additionally, there appears to be an abundance of off-premise and on-promise signs in violation of our current sign code.  Given the City’s recent budget cuts, DPD is now more than ever challenged in staffing sufficiently to enforce compliance. Fees for both of these types of signs may be undervalued relative to their market value to the advertiser.  One citizen has asked, “Seattle has just increased parking rates downtown to “market rate”. What is the market rate for a 648 square foot bill board so prominently positioned?”
Finally, the Hearing Examiner reviewed an initial proposal that would have permitted 4 signs at 324 sq ft each and allowed it to go forward.  The current legislation allowing for greater signage has not been reviewed by the Hearing Examiner for potential impacts on the environment.
I believe we should take the time to address these issues. To that end I’ve drafted a resolution which asks DPD to come back to the Council next year with a report on how to establish a comprehensive set of regulations to ensure that our sign regulations achieve their intent of contributing to the City’s image and not result in the needless proliferation of outdoor advertizing.
Conlin’s Committee will take up both his ordinance and my resolution for a possible vote on December 17th at 9:30 am.
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