Readers of Crosscut might recall the fracas more than a year ago about the proposed change to City of Seattle’s sign law that would have allowed the tops of skyscrapers to have big electronic displays. Well, get ready for a new front in this war.
In order to attract the Russell Company to the empty former WaMu tower, the Greg Nickels administration made a deal to change the code to give Russell the right to brand the skyline with its own name. To conceal the real intent, Russell wasn’t mentioned; the proposed law would be applicable to companies that occupied a very large amount of space within a building.
As it happened, Seattle artist and community activist Bill Bradburd caught wind of this before it was too late and marshaled a group of vocal citizens to beat back the ordinance, despite the intense lobbying by Russell’s hired guns. To save face, the City Council quietly tabled the proposal to a time uncertain. Were it not for Bradburd and his passionate persistence, our gorgeous skyline would be potentially marred by dozens of big lighted signs.
While this bit of drama was occurring in the public eye, a far more insidious and gradual change was taking place out of sight of all but a few keen observers. No company wants its name dragged though the journalistic mud, with photos of its precious logo photoshopped onto news media images of one of the most beautiful cities in the world. But rather than subject themselves to public scrutiny, this latest entrepreneurial cabal has figured out how to get what they want by “creative interpretations” of our current codes. No laws need to be changed, merely the minds of city employees.
Now to prepare yourself for this tale, you might imagine a group of people kicking back on the deck of a yacht, highballs in one hand, cigars in the other, with big cheesy grins, congratulating themselves. They have managed to make the City look like fools, pull a big one over on the public, and make a ton of money in the process. But the story actually starts decades ago.
However, we first need to have an abbreviated glossary, since part of the ruse has to do with terms so obscure that few people outside of bureaucratic circles (and sign companies) even know they exist.
The first is “On Premises Signs.” This is a catch-all that includes the many different types of signs that identify a business where it has its address. For example, the Macrina Bakery has a sign that is mounted above its storefront. When you see it, instantly your mind tells you, “Oh cool, there’s the Macrina Bakery! Yummm.” Probably you even begin to salivate from the thought of a black bottom cupcake.
Companies like Macrina have to get permits and pay fees to the city in order to erect these signs. In some districts, they even have to get special reviews to fit within areas designated as historic. We will come back to Macrina in a minute.
The second term to know is the opposite of the first, “Off Premises Signs.” These are signs that are not physically connected to a business at that location. Although there are also different types, the most commonly recognized ones are billboards. In the past, these have consisted of big steel superstructures mounted on giant columns. They are lighted and located next to or near roadways. They most often advertise brands of alcohol, financial services, cars and trucks, and entertainment. But none of those items are available at that location. Current technology allows these billboards to be printed on huge sheets of vinyl.
The third term, even more obscure, is “frontage.” Bear with me for a second because this is not likely to come up in any cocktail conversation that you will ever have in your life. In most communities, “frontage” refers to a portion of a building that directly abuts the public sidewalk, that is, as it logically sounds, the front of the building. The Seattle code specifically uses the phrase “frontage on public rights of way.” In most urban locations, buildings have distinct fronts, sides, and rears.
Seems pretty elementary, yes? In fact, an elementary school child could probably grasp this notion. In most cities, signs are allowed for businesses that face directly onto the street. But not Seattle.
The Seattle code has been interpreted to allow signs on any side of a building located downtown, so long as you say you have a business on the premises. In fact, below a height of 65 feet, the size of such signs is unlimited. There are a bunch of other arcane terms in the code. But knowing any more of them would probably make you crazy. Suffice it to say, that as long as you tell the city that you have a business somewhere within the bowels of the building, you are allowed to mount an immense sign on the lower 65 feet of the building. In theory, the lower floors of every building downtown could be plastered with big signs.
So let’s turn back the clock several decades.
In the early 1960s, Washington was one of the first states to successfully ban billboards from freeways. An exception can be seen in the lands owned by the Puyallup Tribe along I-5 near Fife, where massive billboards and video screens now flank both sides of the freeway. (Being classified as sovereign nation, the Puyallups can have their own sign laws.) If that state ban had not passed, you would now be seeing hundreds of similar signs from Vancouver to Bellingham, from Port Angeles to Spokane.
The City of Seattle, like many other cities, later passed a law limiting the installation of more billboards, aka off-premises signs. This was an outgrowth of a national effort to reduce the proliferation of commercial advertising that was spoiling our views of mountains, lakes, forests, pastoral lands, and architectural landmarks. It also took an inventory of billboards, ordering removal of those that had been erected without permits.
The City’s law was challenged in court by Ackerley Communications, the owner of most of the billboards in Seattle. The courts upheld the law but the dilemma was that there were scores of billboards in all corners of the city. So a deal was struck that if a billboard that was near certain sensitive locations, like schools or parks or homes, and was then removed, a new one could be erected in certain acceptable locations elsewhere.
Many billboards are installed in parking lots or vacant lots that have since been developed and those could not be replaced, as sign owners lost the leases. So, therefore, over time, the number of billboards would gradually decrease.
Since then, Clear Channel, the successor to Ackerley, has carefully maintained its inventory of permitted billboards. Under the agreement with the city, they have removed many billboards, and replaced them elsewhere. To their credit, each of these billboards is identified by a tiny sign containing the permit numbers they were given. So the public, should they be interested, can be assured that they are legal.
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