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Loopholes in Seattle's sign ordinance are brazenly exploited

The city is plastered with billboard-like "wallscapes" that break the law or stretch it in creative ways. After last year's Russell Investments skyscraper-sign controversy, the broader ordinance is coming under review.

For a few weeks last fall, the biggest political dustup in town was over a sign — the 10-foot-tall illuminated logo that Russell Investments wanted to hang atop its new downtown tower. To get Russell to move from Tacoma, Mayor Nickels' administration and City Council President Richard Conlin had offered to change the city’s sign code, which doesn’t allow signs more than 65 feet above ground, and let Russell brand its piece of the city skyline.

But design, architecture, and good-government types turned out in force, complaining that Russell’s logo would also deface that skyline and open the door to every other big, vain office-tower tenant that wanted to stake a claim. And, because a sky-scraping logo invisible from the street would be all about branding, it would subvert the basic principle of Seattle’s sign code: that signs are for helping people find businesses and find out what’s available inside. They’re not a general advertising medium.

All that was too much for the Seattle Design Commission, which recommended denying Russell’s request, and for the City Council, which decided to table the proposal and take a wider look at the city’s sign code. When councilmembers eventually do that, they’ll see that the threat of a few tower-topping corporate logos is the least sign of trouble in this town. Down at street level, they’ll find what even one local outdoor-advertising operator calls “the Wild West”: a free-for-all of ever bigger and bolder advertising signs, plastering buildings from chic Belltown to gritty SoDo.

Forget the rigid billboards of yesteryear; broadside technology has advanced far beyond painted panels mounted on wooden or steel frames. The industry that made them now calls its products “out of home advertising” and offers to capture eyeballs with messages blazoned on everything from coffee cups and human bodies to building-blanketing projections and flashing LED and video displays. Their staple, however, is printed vinyl-mesh banners of virtually unlimited size, hung to form instant “wallscapes.” Their cost is relatively low and their image quality superb; the effect is like seeing a million-dollar high-def TV commercial freeze-framed on the side of a building.

Seattle has no shortage of strategically visible walls, nor, it seems, of advertisers eager to rent them for prices that, according to a state regulator and an industry insider, often top $20,000 and sometimes $30,000 a month. (The industry is famously secretive about what it charges.)

Trouble is, Seattle’s sign code isn’t supposed to let you throw up billboards or advertising wallscapes. In 1980, the city settled a court fight with Ackerley Communications, the local firm that owned nearly all Seattle’s billboards, on terms that were supposed to grandfather in existing boards (about 520 legal slots remain today) and bar new ones. Billboard owners (mainly Ackerley) received credits for boards located in zones where they’re no longer permitted, which they can use to erect new boards in other zones.

That system more or less continues, though the Texas-based conglomerate Clear Channel has bought Ackerley and its relocation credits. Those are now running out, and Clear Channel is trying to squeeze as much out of them as it can — sometimes with rather brazen switcheroos. It’s used credits for small billboards to hang banners up to 10 times as large at what you’d think would be rather conspicuous sites: the Macy’s parking garage at Third Avenue and Stewart Street (formerly advertising the Pacific Science Center’s Harry Potter show) and on the side of a building right across Fourth Avenue from City Hall (where Mayors Nickels and now McGinn, if they happened to look down from their office patio, could have ogled the latest Scion).

At both sites, Clear Channel used credits for 288-square-foot billboards to hang banners that were five to 10 times larger. Eventually — after four years in the second case — the city’s Department of Planning and Development (DPD) responded to complaints and cracked down: It made Clear Channel use credits for 672-square-foot signs to get permits for 1,500- and 2,700-square-foot banners. According to one industry source, Clear Channel rents each of these jumbo ad sites for about $25,000 a month.


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Comments:

Posted Wed, Jun 15, 9:38 a.m. Inappropriate

Raises the question; WHAT TO DO WITH THE LEFT-OVER VINYL SIGNAGE? I propose that these would signs would make excellent emergency tents for disasters like earthquakes and floods. Most of the signs breathe as they have tiny perforations throughout. They could also be used to germinate plants and seedlings by staking them to the ground. Anything beats crowding the landfills. Is there anything the industry is doing now to re-cycle the signs?

chapala21

Posted Wed, Jun 15, 10:35 a.m. Inappropriate

Signs are cool, and they are part and parcel of any urban landscaped. Get your noses out of the air, please.

Nixing the Russell sign was a great way to say, bring your business here, but don't expect us to honor our commitment to your making it work here.

If signs help bring---and keep---jobs here, bring on the signs.

Posted Wed, Jun 15, 12:43 p.m. Inappropriate

A welcome byline, hope to see more.

This town once had some terrific neon signage, and it's a damn shame so many people find commercial display in a commercial center troubling. Bright lights, big city after all. Signs at traffic level that are designed to distract, those are problematic and regulation of those is sensible.

NickBob

Posted Thu, Jun 16, 12:25 p.m. Inappropriate

The experience of Minneapolis and surroundings is video-documented here:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Vai8j-Lusnw

cyberoid

Posted Fri, Jun 17, 10:45 a.m. Inappropriate

I think the banners and billboards everywhere are ugly and really detract from what could be a beautiful city. It's too bad that it is so rampant.
One of the best things about France is no billboards anywhere. I wish people would put people before advertising and get rid of all the horrific advertising everywhere in Seattle. It's ugly and depressing.

LaLa1

Posted Fri, Jun 17, 2:17 p.m. Inappropriate

We need to do everything we can to quite the visual din. When the beautiful elements of our City; architecture, green space, public art and the people around us have to compete with rampant "out of home" advertising, we are giving up more than we realize.

For all of our sake keep outdoor advertising to a minimum.

J_G

Posted Fri, Jun 17, 2:51 p.m. Inappropriate

Seattleites once again show the world that they simply do not grasp the concept of a big city. I second @NickBob's comment, and also @beaky's comment awhile back requesting people in Seattle who get their undies in a twist about stuff like this to retire to their yurts...

orino

Posted Fri, Jun 17, 3:50 p.m. Inappropriate

@ Orino - This article and the comments give plenty of good reasons not encourage "out of home" product advertising (which is different than building identification or way finding or genuine on premise signage). Please let us know why you think it shouldn't be banned and why this has anything to do with a "concept of a big city".

J_G

Posted Fri, Jun 17, 4:54 p.m. Inappropriate

"One textbook example: an eye-popping banner for the Montana Office of Tourism — at 2,700 square feet one of the largest signs in town — that Clear Channel hung on the side of the Terminal Sales Annex at Second Avenue and Virginia Street in April."

While we all know that Clear Channel (Ackerley 'Communications' when it was a local operation) will put a sign on anything at all it might have been interesting to ask the buildings owners/property managers at Martin Smith the thinking behind renting the side of their 'landmark' building for whatever cash they could finagle.

Never forget. There's money in blight.

Posted Sat, Jun 18, 3:14 p.m. Inappropriate

Good piece, Mr. S. I think the key metric is the $20K to $30K per month. That would equal the rent for about 20,000 sq. ft. in a moderately upscale office building. If accurate, that is staggering. Controlling that is going to be like controlling crack; you can try.

kieth

Posted Mon, Jun 20, 11:47 a.m. Inappropriate

There are two different questions here.

One: Can the sign law be enforced? Apparently not. Either the city council needs to write a clear law that can be enforced or they need to repeal the non-functioning law they have.

Two: Do we really need or want the sign law in the first place? On one hand we have the value of an un-cluttered city-scape. On the other hand we have the absurd self-contradiction of "un-cluttered cityscape". what makes the great cities of the world great is the buzz - the almost electric vibe - created by a lot of human activity, pedestrians, and a busy (at times overwhelming) stream of visual stimulation. Anyone who has walked the sidewalks of New York, Seattle, and Bellevue can attest to this buzz, which cities have it (and are therefore real cities) and which cities don't.

Most of these vinyl tarps cover blank brick walls. I don't see the blank walls as an aesthetic upgrade.

Let's drop the hicktown attitude and embrace urbanization. Let's allow the signs (and tax the heck out of 'em).

coolpapa

Posted Tue, Jun 21, 10:51 a.m. Inappropriate

This is not about being friendly to business. It's about the competition for our eyes. The value to the advertiser is in knowing people have to see the ad. We accepted ads on TV when we got access and programing in exchange, for 'free' we felt. Once we paid directly for access (i.e. cable) and could choose (i.e. Tivo) people have opted out, crippling TV ad revenue and pushing those dollars into our streets. What's different about our public space is we get nothing in return for the ads. The ad production and placement revenue goes out of state.

The community as owners of the public space, make the revenue possible for out door advertisers and get nothing. Couple this with the fact that when given the choice, people don't want to be forced to look at advertising. We tolerate ads when we feel we get something in return.

To begin with, we should stop the current game and ban all off premises advertising and limit on-premises to reasonable and understandable rules. Stop the public bleed.

Then, if we as a community determine we can profitably manage some amount of legitimate off premises advertising in exchange for real money, we manage the allocation to maximize financial benefits to the community within the environmental and visual constraints we feel protect the community at large.

coach

Posted Fri, Jun 24, 2:54 p.m. Inappropriate

I'm with coach.

psj

Posted Sun, Jun 26, 12:31 a.m. Inappropriate

Coolpapa wrote: "Do we really need or want the sign law in the first place? On one hand we have the value of an un-cluttered city-scape. On the other hand we have the absurd self-contradiction of "un-cluttered cityscape". what makes the great cities of the world great is the buzz - the almost electric vibe - created by a lot of human activity, pedestrians, and a busy (at times overwhelming) stream of visual stimulation. Anyone who has walked the sidewalks of New York, Seattle, and Bellevue can attest to this buzz, which cities have it (and are therefore real cities) and which cities don't."

I grew up in NYC. Once upon a time we had no anti-littering laws and no poop-scoop law. The streets were full of garbage and dog excrement — and we liked it that way. It was part of the urban vibe. People commonly threw trash out their car windows without thinking it was wrong. People did not pickup after their dogs. Not ever! At one point there was a campaign to CURB YOUR DOG — let it drop its waste in the street as opposed to next to your neighbor's tree or fire hydrant as was customary. The stuff piled up in massive heaps and trash blowing down the street was a natural part of the landscape. We liked it that way!

These were vibrant practices that made NYC great. It wasn't until nanny-state busy-bodies got their special-interest legislation passed that throwing garbage out your car window became illegal. Same thing for picking up after your dog. I'd prefer to not have a dog than to submit to that violation of my rights and heritage.

With this sign thing. I think you should get a bunch of these used signs and drape your house in them. Then we can experience that electric vibe that makes cities great. I'm sure your neighbors will love it and it'll become a regular part of the urban scene.

Iponder

Posted Mon, Jun 27, 2:22 p.m. Inappropriate

Living here in a city where making up your mind is considered an act of aggression and dithering is our favorite pastime, I was delighted to read Iponder's pointed and hilarious comments about the pros and cons of so-called nanny laws. You can always count on an NYC native to cut through the crap.

But this is so much more than some kind of Seattle green issue. Even if—in a time of admittedly pressing concerns—you don't give a dim-bulb damn about visual blight and pollution of the night sky by too much artificial light, you should be concerned about the other green aspect of this issue because it's all about money. The people who are plastering the city with wildly out-of-compliance and flat-out illegal advertising are selling their products and services to you on buildings and city streets at virtually no cost. Making them pay, through taxes or usages fees, for access to the hearts and minds of the people who live in and visit Seattle would take a tiny ding out of the profits they're making from this free advertising space and it would provide the city with a valuable source of revenue that could be put toward fixing the many other problems that are beginning to pile up in times of reduced revenue.

These people pay plenty for access to the advertising space that they buy in newspapers, TV and online. If the city of Seattle is going to give them access to our eyeballs, we should at least get a comparable amount money for allowing them to use our shared public space to sell their products to us.

Posted Wed, Jun 29, 2:04 p.m. Inappropriate

The value I place on the beauty of our streets is pretty high. I'm not sure I'd willingly sell it for an amount anyone could consider reasonable.

J_G

Posted Thu, Jul 7, 3 p.m. Inappropriate

For me it's not an issue of complete exclusion as much as it is about managing our visual environment. I'm pretty sure most people in Seattle would object to seeing Seattle dominated by billboards as has occurred in L.A. This is an industry that can not be trusted to behave in moderation. Define the acceptable specific zones/locations, make it clear what the rules are, tax the ad revenue to pay for the management and create a direct economic benefit for the community.
The industry asserts that non-location specific general outdoor advertising somehow promotes local business or that 'we're open for business'. I'm sure, we all check out the latest beer billboard and immediately buy the product or feel better about our community. This is nonsense. The ad revenue goes out of state, the ad production is done out of state and with digital, say good bye to the folks who currently do installation.
Lastly, I understand one digital billboard uses the equivalent electricity to 30 homes.

coach

Posted Tue, May 1, 8:38 a.m. Inappropriate

I agree with various posters that make the point that cities are business hubs, and that businesses should be able to advertise accordingly. I will admit that the limiting of Billboards along the freeway is a smart idea as this tends to distract from the natural beauty of the Northwest (the occasional view of Mt. Rainier being a small relief while sitting in traffic).
I support local business and their need to advertise. I am ashamed that I live in a city that would steal Russell from Tacoma and then go back on their word.
If Seattle is going to focus on the small percentage of people that want to maintain the pristine (yet artificial) skyline and isn't going to reasonably come up with solutions to the traffic problems (failed monorail), I just hope they never take my bus advertising away; it has been the most effective way for me to get my message out as so many of my customers have responded after being stuck in traffic next to a bus! (Thanks Titan!)

jmaas1

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