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Cities ought to embrace street life, including sandwich boards

If signs on the sidewalk help businesses and don't create any danger, what is the need for the city to worry?

Sandwich boards sit outside Cafe Soleil

Sandwich boards sit outside Cafe Soleil Chuck Wolfe


Rethinking allowed uses in city rights-of-way can change the look and feel of streets in unexpected fashion — especially when the focus is on more than the ambiance of sidewalk cafes, benches, or clocks. One example is the impact of sandwich board signs, something I first noticed last year when researching the key role of corners in reconsidering neighborhood spaces.

Sandwich board signage, also known as “A-frames,” can be easily traced to 19th century urban roots. Local businesses rely on them for advertising and wayfinding, although they often impede the pedestrian traffic around them, block sight lines, or distract the vehicular traffic passing by.

Like sidewalk cafes, sandwich boards are making a comeback. Often prohibited in the past, they are now permitted, but regulated in scope. In many cities, such as Aspen, Colo., the approach replaces the outright prohibition with specific conditions in certain parts of the city:

Sandwich board signs are intended for special sales, the advertisement of unique menus or offerings at restaurant establishments, and for businesses that are difficult to locate. Only one (1) sandwich board sign is permitted per business and a permit must be obtained. The size is not to exceed six (6) square feet per side. These signs are only permitted for retail and restaurant businesses within the CC and C-1 zone districts. Restaurants may use one (1) sandwich board sign if it is located on adjacent private property. Additionally, sandwich board signs may be used continuously by those locations identified on the City of Aspen Sandwich Board Sign Location Map. Amendments to the map may be made administratively by the Community Development Director.

Elsewhere, such as Seattle, sign dimensions and locations are similarly prescribed, subject to street use permit application processes, location criteria, and fees ($146 for the first year) largely administered by the City’s Department of Transportation. Generally speaking, businesses are entitled to use them, but questions inevitably arise when the signs are placed at some distance from the business, or in a way that constricts safe passage.

As a lawyer interested in the "on the ground" impact of policy and regulation, I find the picture of implementation in this case more interesting and dynamic than the actual permit criteria. With a return to a neighborhood base built around multi-modal street life, the images here show sandwich boards as both fascinating symptoms and emblems of the changing city.

Perhaps because of business necessity and the the simple, homespun nature of sandwich boards, users assume flexible placement of such signage is appropriate. Recently, one Seattle blogger took to moving sandwich boards to the side of sidewalks, reporting those he suspected as illegal. He also expressed ironic concern over potential city liability for any case of trip and fall.

Whether compliant or not (see my earlier essay on the role of "shapes of avoidance" on the landscape), I think the real question is how more random, simple signage such as sandwich boards typifies the popular essence of today’s urbanism. When a sidewalk is "occupied" in a more minimal fashion, is a fee really appropriate? Other than standards assuring public safety, are there aesthetic risks which cities should manage? In summary, is this a market that should largely go unregulated?

If public safety can be assured by simple criteria governing location, timing, size, and shape, I offer five reasons why sandwich boards should stay:

  1. Homespun simplicity sells.
  2. Artisans need work and small businesses need affordable ways to shine.
  3. Well done signs bring character to neighborhood.
  4. Sandwich boards can supplement permitted façade signage and increase the prominence of a small business.
  5. Perhaps most important, like other forms of pop-up urbanism, removal is an option.

We should foster and encourage quick fixes that innovate. If done right, aren’t sandwich boards one example that can literally show the way?

A similar version of this post first appeared in The Atlantic Cities.

Charles R. (Chuck) Wolfe, is an attorney in Seattle, where he focuses on land use, environmental law and permitting. He is also an Affiliate Associate Professor in the College of Built Environments at the University of Washington, where he teaches land use law at the graduate level. He serves on the Board of Directors of Futurewise and Seattle Great City, the Management Committee of the Urban Land Institute's (ULI) Northwest District Council and has held leadership positions for the American Planning Association and the Washington State Bar Association. Chuck is an avid traveler, photographer and writer, and contributes regularly on urban development topics for The Atlantic, The Atlantic Cities, Grist, The Huffington Post, seattlepi.com and others. His book, Urbanism Without Effort (Island Press, 2013), was released in May. He blogs regularly at myurbanist.


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Comments:

Posted Mon, Mar 26, 3:49 a.m. Inappropriate

What is sandwich boards??
Are they so important.

myfreind

Posted Mon, Mar 26, 6:14 a.m. Inappropriate

Regulations, Chuck. As an attorney you should know their importance.
Sandwich boards discriminate against people in wheel chairs.
Stop bullying paraplegics.

BlueLight

Posted Mon, Mar 26, 7:19 a.m. Inappropriate

I'd just like to see a regulation that requires that a certain width of sidewalk be kept clear, at least wide enough for two adults to pass each other.

talisker

Posted Mon, Mar 26, 8:15 a.m. Inappropriate

I'm the "one Seattle blogger" referred to.

They get in the way. Every sidewalk should have clear space for a couple adults to pass, as talisker says. A busier sidewalk should have room for the whole volume of pedestrians to not have to step aside.

Whose sidewalk is it anyway? The business doesn't get to claim public property for its own.

I'll live with the sign if there's enough room and it's off to the side. But if it's in the middle, damn right I'll move it. And occasionally I'll be proactive and talk to the owner. For the ones who don't play nicely, the City usually solves things upon request.

mhays

Posted Mon, Mar 26, 8:58 a.m. Inappropriate

One of the basics to city life in the USA and Europe is walk to the right. Sandwich boards and sidewalk cafe's in Seattle have pushed the "walk to the right" principle into a state of confusion. Frequently one ends up in the middle of the pedestrian flow once clearing a gauntlet of signs and cafes. In downtown Seattle the outdoor cafes with bars are really smokers corners, with drinking and smoking til late late night. A typical pedestrian in Seattle must steer past numerous beggars, signboards, smokers cafe's, skateboarders, bicyclists, and thedn bus zones which have their own special problems. No one seems interested in the concept of a smooth flowing pedestrian sidewalk. Noise wise we also put up with obnoxious alarms telling us that a car is coming a car is coming as if the car had the right of way on the sidewalk. Need I mention the numerous people walking one or two or three "toy" dogs, the leashes extended every which way? In the end what's happened is the pleasure of the city stroll, casual window shopping, general city ambience has been lost and sadly ground into the pavement. In response the store owners, desperate to grab the attention of all the sidewalk pedestrian struggling to get past their store feels forced to create an even bigger sign board and hey why not put it right in the crosswalk entry, that ought to get their attention. And so the cycle goes. Maybe the article author lives in the outlying neighborhoods or the suburbs where being a pedestrian is a more casual thing. Maybe that's different. But downtown Seattle is a combat zone and over proliferating signboards just part of a larger pattern of degenerating city ambience. Common sense is no longer applied , regulation will most likely be heavy handed, I think the future of sidewalk culture is chaotic. In places like New York common sense rules the day, chaos is common but there pedestrian flow is considered essential to the city and its business. Maybe we just haven't hit the critical mass needed for people to see the importance of unimpeded walking.

chapala21

Posted Mon, Mar 26, 9:11 a.m. Inappropriate

Wow chapala21, you hit lots of my favorite points! The leash thing and alarms in particular. (Manna from heaven...the buzz version of truck alarms vs. the alarm clock that's dominated recent decades. Can't wait for those stupid kneeling buses to get that upgrade.)

Another is the idiocy of how we locate tree wells (i.e. their pavement cutouts). Sometimes they're extended farther than necessary into the walk space, purely for artistry it seems. The result is sometimes a surprise turn of the ankle (in fall) and frequently having to either wait for others to clear the narrow space or walk in the mud.

mhays

Posted Mon, Mar 26, 10:39 a.m. Inappropriate

I tend to agree that Seattle should avoid the heavy regulatory hand practiced in some Eastside cities--they are simply outlawed in Bellevue for example. A free hand, however, is going too far. In some places in Seattle, you can't park on the street and exit your car because A-frames clutter the sidewalk next to the curb. As a pedestrian you are sometimes forced to walk an obstacle course of signs which, when combined with tree wells, poor sidewalk condition, and other detritus, makes for a risky pedestrian environment. I appreciate the notion of that well done signs can contribute to the look and feel of a neighborhood or a block, but too often such signs are an aesthetic mess and contribute to visual clutter not urban character. Perhaps a number of simple performance standards are the answer.

Taos50

Posted Mon, Mar 26, 3:19 p.m. Inappropriate

Wait! Won't a proliferation of sandwich boards which stand alone put all those homeless people who hold signs at the corner for your latest "mattress going out of business sale today only!" be out of work?

Truthfully I don't mind sandwich boards because for things like a temporary business location, ie horse & carriage rides, today's cafe special I find them useful. But those "Rugs for less!" signs have to go. So I'll toss the cafe boards to not have the rug merchants.

GaryP

Posted Tue, Mar 27, 5:55 p.m. Inappropriate

I'm all for street life and sandwich boards and sidewalk cafes -- with one exception. When the sidewalk cafe closes for the winter, take down the damn fence and give us back our sidewalk!

Keeping that public land walled off for several of our cold and wet months, for no reason, is just selfish and inconsiderate. And does your cafe no good at all.

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