Should Seattle allow big corporate signage on its skyscrapers?

A change to the city's sign ordinance would allow large, lighted signs on the sides of tall buildings.
Crosscut archive image.

The view of Seattle's skyline from Bellevue College.

A change to the city's sign ordinance would allow large, lighted signs on the sides of tall buildings.

Imagine yourself a couple of years from now, taking a ferry from Bainbridge Island to Seattle. Maybe you had dinner at Café Nola with friends. Perhaps you are winding down from a weekend camping trip in the Olympics. The sun is setting. The skyline is becoming a glorious array of spiky stalagmites rising up from the deep purple bay with a rich blue sky as the backdrop.

Off to the left is the Space Needle, its tapered form glowing with soft white light. Off to the right is Mount Rainier, a great snowy mound catching the last light of the day. You sigh. All is right with the world. Seattle is perfect. You are at peace.

But hey! What'ꀙs that?? There are billboards being switched on atop an office tower. Wait, there'ꀙs another. And another. . . Suddenly the serene scene you were taking in seconds ago is souring as corporate logo after logo lights up. WTF??? Are we in Houston?

Return back to 2010. Can'ꀙt happen here? Oh yes, indeed. It already is — or someone is trying, at least.

An amendment to Seattle'ꀙs sign code is being quietly moved along the bureaucratic path toward adoption by the City Council. This little amendment would allow any commercial tenant to affix four lighted signs, each 350 square feet (roughly the size of two parking stalls) to the top of its building. City staff estimate there are 10 buildings with tenants large enough to qualify. And get this: the City has issued a statement declaring there would be no significant impact.

Ponder this for a minute. Right now our skyline — which we all own collectively, which is internationally, instantly recognizable, which is composed of historic and contemporary architecture, which is more than the sum of its parts — is stunningly gorgeous. Breathtaking. A blend of art, technology, engineering, and building craft. Clean, pristine, unsullied by crass commercialism.

Just waiting to be branded. Marked by corporate entities merely because they are BIG. And vocal. And can wield influence in various forms. A skyline usurped by companies that for all we know won'ꀙt even exist in 10 years, having been bought, gone bankrupt, or otherwise disappeared. Imagine a tower of the future marked with four big CHASE signs. Four big Nordstrom signs. Or, um, four big BP signs.

One need not travel very far to see what this looks like. A number of years ago, the City of Bellevue changed its code to allow exactly this, although lawmakers there were smart enough to limit the permission to signs facing I-405. Not so in Seattle, where the code change would allow signs facing in any direction. Queen Anne. I-5. Elliott Bay.

Which is precisely why at least one company, and likely more, want this law changed. They want their personal mark on our skyline as seen from the bay. Picture those annual brochures, sent to company stockholders. The amazing Seattle skyline with the company'ꀙs own logo, front and center — and the others'ꀙ Photoshopped out, of course.

Thank God for Bill Bradburd, a civically savvy artist and community activist who read the fine print in city notices and discovered the dirty little secret. Single-handedly, Bradburd has slowed the change by appealing the decision of non-significance, essentially busting a city government bent on selling its soul for some signs. (Disclosure: I was one of Bill'ꀙs expert witnesses at a recent SEPA appeal hearing on this issue.)

Feel better? Not so fast. The draft law is still churning through the system, getting poised and polished and prepped to hit the City Council. Bill may have tossed a hurdle in its path, but the momentum continues.

Unless it's stopped, as it well should be. By the Mayor. Or by the Council.

Anyone wanna take bets?


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About the Authors & Contributors

Mark Hinshaw

Mark Hinshaw

Mark Hinshaw, FAIA, is an architect and urban planner. He was an architecture critic for The Seattle Times and is the author of many articles and books, including Citistate Seattle (1999).