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.
This switcheroo indicates just what kind of size inflation has occurred in the outdoor ad business: 288 and 672 square feet were the standard billboard sizes back when the city settled with Ackerley; today’s banners run to 3,000 feet in Seattle and much larger elsewhere. Olivia Lippens, president of Clear Channel Outdoor Seattle, says the switch is justified because the signs’ “significant copy” still fits within 672 square feet. (Pay no attention to all that space around it.) That’s a neat trick, like getting a permit for a 2,000-square-foot house and building 10,000 square feet because you have just 2,000 square feet of furniture.
Elsewhere, Clear Channel and other billboard companies have hit upon an even neater trick for sites with no billboard credit: to recruit a mom-and-pop business to act as a front for an off-site advertiser (usually national) — and get the result approved as an “on-premise” shop sign. 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.
Barbara Robinson, who operates the Amcan travel agency inside the building, said the company approached her and offered to post her name “at no charge” on the wall, explaining that “this would make it okay to put a billboard up there.” To establish the on-premise connection, it stuck a small name tag for Amcan under the banner and, under pressure from the city, painted out the “.com” in the inscription “visitmt.com” on the banner.
Clear Channel didn’t apply for this permit until a month after hanging the banner. Until then it seems to have relied on the presumption that this was actually a noncommercial sign — and the city attorney’s office concurred, declaring that this was indeed a legal “noncommercial message.” Evidently the Montana tourism office is paying $340,000 for this and other signs around Seattle purely for educational purposes, not to get people to spend money in Montana.
Other outdoor firms don’t have lots of legal billboard space like Clear Channel, so they've stretched the on-premise loophole even further. One relatively legit example: the nationally disseminated Stella Artois banner hanging on the north wall of Belltown’s Cyclops Café (and covering one of Seattle’s most cherished ghost signs, an eerie double exposure of faded Pepsi and Seven-Up images). In this case the billboard operator cut out a Stella logo in the lower left corner, but the message is still unmistakable. The diamond-studded Stella sipper in the image and her admirer, both dressed to the nines, scarcely look like Cyclops patrons. But Cyclops does pour Stella, so the city approved it as an “on-premise sign.” Likewise the Stella banner hanging in the alley behind the Kress Supermarket on Third Avenue — even though it bears scanty visual connection to the store.
Just a block up First Avenue from Cyclops, the landlord for the Black Bottle restaurant and the Enumclaw-based outdoor advertising firm KNL applied for a permit for an improbably large — 850 square foot — sign saying simply “Black Bottle” on the other side of the building. They then revised their design to propose a full-color banner advertising Widmer Beer. When the city rejected the application, they put up the banner anyway.
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