Loopholes in Seattle’s sign ordinance are brazenly exploited

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.

For months, a big banner advertising Alaska Airlines’ Hawaiian vacations hung on the backside of a building next to I-5 in the International District. To justify it as an “on-premise” sign, a lectern-style computer screen showing the airline’s website was wheeled into the curio shop around the corner. But the sign’s real target is the thousands of motorists whizzing by on I-5 — a prime, hard-to-reach market, since state law (with federal backing) bans billboards near interstates.

The state Department of Transportation ordered the sign removed, and it eventually was. But another banner advertising “Tabasco of Buffalo Style Sauces” still stretches across the same building’s north wall, likewise luring interstate eyeballs. (Ads for Charles Schwab, HBO, and American Family Insurance previously hung there.) When asked if they sold Tabasco Sauce, workers at the Chinese herb and grocery store and restaurant around the corner reached for their digital translators (“Tabac…Tabac”) and shook their heads.

Pat O’Leary, who manages the state’s highway-advertising control program, is trying to get that sign removed as well. He’s also going after two huge banners hung on a building just west of Qwest Field, with a clear shot at traffic on the Highway 99 viaduct. In a telling twist, one of those advertisers apparently violating the state’s billboard law is the Washington State Lottery. The city approved its banner, and another for Coors Light, as “on-premise” signs. But when I went into the building’s only retail store, a sports memorabilia shop, and tried to buy a beer and a lottery ticket, the clerk stared at me in bemusement.

In each of these cases, O’Leary has run a merry chase trying to penetrate the layers of agencies, contractors, landlords, and retail fronts involved to get to a responsible party: “It’s like a follow-the-money thing,” he explains.

Even if those shops did have a bottle of Tabasco or can of beer on hand, says O’Leary, it wouldn’t turn that billboard into a shop sign: “We have a pretty simple test, under state and federal law. If there’s rental income for a sign, then it’s considered outdoor advertising” — not an on-premise sign.

But Seattle doesn’t enforce that standard. Veteran assistant city attorney Eleanore Baxendale, who’s handled much of the city’s billboard litigation, maintains it wouldn’t be tenable. She notes that retailers get paid to place products prominently in their stores, so why shouldn’t landlords get paid to place product names on their buildings?

But the state doesn’t seem to have any problem enforcing that provision. And the city sign code does include language that seems to come to the same thing. It defines an on-premise commercial sign as one that is “used solely by a business establishment on the lot where the sign is located” and displays “messages that are strictly applicable only to a use of the premises on which it is located [emphasis added].” If a national advertiser pays rent and dictates the message, then the sign’s not being used “solely” by the on-site business.

Richard Alford, the city’s sign-program manager, has cited such rent as a disqualifying factor in letters ordering billboard firms to remove illegal off-premise signs. But the city’s attorneys haven’t backed him up on that provision, and it’s fallen from use. Now, in a particularly brazen case of an advertiser gaming the system, the city may have given away any chance at effective enforcement against bogus “on-premise” billboards.

The player in this case is the most audacious of the local firms promoting such signs, the iconGroupe, a.k.a. Icon Groupé and Total Outdoor. Icon/Total is a relatively new firm, but its principals, Randy Swain, Frank Podany, Drew Hoffman, and Bill Ackerley, are veterans; they’ve worked together for two decades, first at Ackerley Communications, then at Clear Channel’s Northwest division.

Podany credits city officials with blazing the trail his company has followed. In 2004, enormous “Qwest Field” logos appeared on the new football stadium’s sloping roofs. An ad hoc watchdog group, Save Our Skyline, sued, claiming these signs constituted illegal off-premise advertising for Qwest. The suit was dismissed as untimely, but it did expose an eyebrow-raising stratagem. To legitimize the signs as “on-premise,” the stadium, allegedly on DPD’s advice, got a permit to install a tiny booth selling Qwest phone services.

Icon/Total and a predecessor company have for five years led those same officials on a dance over wallscapes installed on Icon’s home building, at 1943 First Ave. S. in SoDo. It obtained permits for “noncommercial free speech messages” and hung banners promoting shows at the Seattle Aquarium, Oregon Museum of Science, and Pacific Science Center. The city made Icon take these down, noting that just because these are nonprofit operations doesn’t mean their ads aren’t ads. Icon then hung banners for Pepsi and Widmer and set out to establish “on premise” cred for them. In the latter case, it applied for a liquor license for its secure third-floor office. The city didn’t buy that either.

Today, the building’s south wall is blazoned with a 3,000-square-foot wallscape that covers one of the town’s coolest murals, a mirror-image silhouette of the harbor cranes to the west. This über-banner urgists motorists to “Find Your Frappuccino,” but they won’t find it in the Macrina Bakery that occupies the building’s first-floor street frontage. After the city ordered Icon to remove this piece of blatant off-premise advertising, Icon, with impressive persistence, announced that it had vouchers for Starbucks coffee available in its office. And it applied for a retail license so it could keep a cooler of drinks there too, just in case anyone asked.

The case dragged on for years, until February when the city settled. Icon paid the city $10,000 — money that, according to assistant city attorney Patrick Downs, covered the period before Icon began offering Starbucks vouchers and the sign became legal. Podany insists that the sign has “been legal since it’s been up.”

What the two sides agreed on in the settlement is that this wallscape is legal now. And if it is — if having vouchers turns a third-floor ad-company office into a Starbucks outlet — then it’s hard to imagine any unacceptable on-premise use. A downtown office tower might hang a 65-foot-tall Cadillac Escalade ad on Fifth Avenue if a law firm on the 42nd floor offered vouchers for a free test drive.

What’s wrong with that, some sanguine urbanites will say: The more signs the merrier, to enliven our staid streetscapes. But signs can also distract and disorient — that’s the point of advertising — and create traffic hazards, which is what led cities to regulate them in the first place. Today’s giant vinyl wallscapes are supremely eye-catching. They’re also the same from Long Island to Los Angeles (which is fighting — and, to a casual view, losing — its own battle with runaway outdoor advertising). Left to proliferate, they’ll make urban streets look as generic and homogenized as suburban shopping strips.

Times Square, the Vegas Strip, and “Blade Runner’s” L.A. dystopia may be nice places to visit, depending on taste. But would you want to live there? Icon/Total Outdoor has big plans for helping us do just that. “We are constantly expanding and adding other markets,” its website declares — including, so far, Portland, San Francisco, Boston, Miami, Detroit, and Greenwich, Connecticut.

In 2008 Icon and a partner company offered to build a nationwide emergency notification network if they could erect digital billboards above streets and highways. Their proposal to the Federal Communications Commission noted that Icon was “pioneering the concept of providing technology to first responders in exchange for advertising space on public property.” Motorists would no longer have to stare at their laptops, tablets, and smartphones to enjoy the benefits of flashing digital distraction.

Here in Seattle, the old Ackerley lawsuits and the constant threat of new litigation have made signs the third rail of civic regulation. A succession of administrations has been loath to revisit the patchwork sign code, or to enforce it aggressively. DPD’s inspectors do their best, but they’re stretched thin, with just 1.5 FTEs assigned to signs, obliging them to respond to complaints rather than patrolling proactively. And they’re undercut by permissive interpretations by city attorneys.

Charging outdoor advertisers usage fees for the lucrative public visual space they occupy could pay for more enforcement, and help relieve the city’s strained coffers. But the city merely charges upfront permit fees, costimg from a few hundred dollars to a thousand or two.

Now, however, the Russell flap has forced the City Council to reexamine the patchwork sign code and spotty enforcement. Sally Clark, who chairs the council’s Built Environment Committee, fears that the penalties the city does charge (which are routinely reduced by municipal judges on appeal) are an easily borne “cost of doing business” for advertisers. Even the $10,000 Icon paid is a fraction of a month’s rent for a big wallscape. “There are certainly are some folks who aren’t playing by the rules,” Clark notes — and they’re profiting handsomely by it.

Clark plans to launch hearings on revamping the sign code this summer. Meanwhile, she offers one note of reassurance: “It’s not ‘Blade Runner’ out there.” Not yet, anyway.

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