Vast billboards find a gaping loophole in Seattle laws

Mammoth vinyl signs are spreading through Seattle's downtown, brazenly skirting the regulations.
Crosscut archive image.

A big vinyl billboard in downtown Seattle.

Mammoth vinyl signs are spreading through Seattle's downtown, brazenly skirting the regulations.

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.

So far, this seems like a win for all. The company would keep an income stream. Seattle would see a gradual decrease in these signs as the years go by. Except that is not what is happening. We have been getting more of them.

The violators are not Clear Channel, but rather competitors and other unnamed outfits. Clear Channel Outdoor spokesman Jim Cullinan said, "All of Clear Channel Outdoor billboards in Seattle have permits and are legal.  We support the city of Seattle and its efforts to eliminate illegal billboards.  We also believe there is an opportunity to review and modernize the city ordinance dealing with billboards so Seattle can better manage the signs in the city while enabling Seattle businesses to more effectively connect with area consumers."

Remember those three glossary terms? They have been used to create an illusion so big, so brazen and so outrageous that it is hiding in plain sight. Someone should call David Copperfield. He needs to know about this clever trick.

Several years ago, I was visiting a friend of mine who had a work loft in the SoDo district. She pulled me outside to look at an immense expanse of vinyl fabric that had been stretched across the side of the building. It advertised Coke; the familiar logo was spread across the side of the old building. She said the sign company claimed it was selling Coca Cola within the building. Therefore, it was not an off-premises billboard but rather an on-premises business sign.

My friend then took me back inside to a dark corridor that was not open to the public, where there was indeed a Coke machine. An old, dead one. It was not even plugged in. Obviously, the sign company knew the City’s code enforcers would not likely keep monitoring the hallway to see that the plug was in the wall.

As absurd as this story sounds, that is precisely what is occurring right now on buildings all over downtown. It is a deliberately calculated ruse, designed to circumvent the restrictions on billboards. And it is apparently being done with full knowledge by the City and with big bucks being made by outdoor advertising companies.

So let’s look at a few examples of this public scam. Remember, in order to mount these big displays and claim they are on-premises signs, they have to offer the product or services in that building.

Take the one on the east side of First Avenue, between Pike and Pine, across from the Pike Place Market. Below the massive sign for the Apple iPod is a very small sign that references an address where something related to the sign is available. The address is #1528. Now its highly doubtful that the average passerby would see that diminutive sign and make such a connection. But we thought it would be interesting to see just what was available at #1528. I discovered that there is, in fact, no business operating there; the storefront is papered over.

A few blocks further to the south, there is a huge billboard for the new City Target that is mounted above a little patch of grass. Is the Target store on that block? Nope. It’s a couple of blocks to the north. Oddly, a small sign refers to the name of a market on the block, as if that explained everything. In fact, there is no store by that name.

Let’s look at what could be the best example on grand scale. On the west side of the parking garage next to Macy’s there is a huge sign for Apple computers. The size of the sign is so immense as to be reminiscent of the airborne advertising in the film Blade Runner. If you look at the concrete block wall below, there is a small strip that was recently painted black with white lettering. It refers to products available at Third and Stewart. Perhaps right now you are likely excited by the prospect of a new Apple outlet in downtown.

Sorry to disappoint you. If you walk around the corner to Third and Stewart, what do you find? A totally empty storefront. Now it is possible that the sign was actually referring to the pay booth for the garage, which is near Third and Stewart. But since there was no attendant there, we could not determine what delectable Apple products were available within the 4x4 foot booth. Was there perhaps a cache of little iPods stashed under the counter? Maybe you need to whisper to the attendant “Hey mann, I wanna buy some pod.”

If you drive around downtown, you will now see numerous examples of this, sometimes with similarly comic effect. A big promotional billboard for Montana sign can be called an On Premise Sign because apparently somewhere inside the building is a travel agency that can book you a flight to Billings.

Now, back to Macrina. On the side of the building on First Avenue South is a huge billboard advertising Starbucks. Ironically, if you stand there, you are within a stone’s throw of the company’s world headquarters, where such a sign would be perfectly legal. Below the big sign on the Macrina building there is a small sign with a cryptic notation that refers to something available within the building. The other side of the building has another big billboard advertising beer. Does Macrina sell either Starbucks coffee or beer?

They do not. So where is it? The building’s directory lists an outdoor advertising company on an upper floor. Perhaps that’s it. Pressing the button recently led only to a message machine. It is rumored that somewhere within the bowels of the building is a closet containing a stack of discount coupons for Frappacinos.

What this means is that any building in downtown is fair game for these advertising predators. As long as they can find (or pay) someone somewhere inside a building to handle something related to the product being advertising, their big vinyl banners can be installed anywhere. So far, the ruse has been successful because these big billboards are not discernible from the legally permitted billboards. Really, who would know the difference?

Now there is an easy solution to this. For a number of years I worked in a regulatory agency for another city. Some people would claim to operate a business that was permitted in order to actually run something that was not. So the agency would require income tax returns, licenses, Business and Occupation tax reports, and other tangible evidence of substantial business activity. In other words, that city didn’t merely take a company’s word for it, it required documented proof. If the proof wasn’t forthcoming, the operation would be shut down. If they persisted, heavy fines would be levied on a daily basis.

Specifically with respect to signs, sometimes illegal signs were not removed even after multiple notices. The City would then have them removed and place a lien for the cost of doing so against the property. It only takes doing that a few times before the word gets out that your code means something.

To be fair, a representative of City Councilwoman Sally Clark notes that the City has been in repeated legal battles with billboard companies, with some limited success. But these companies are a slippery bunch. They change their names and re-start. They run a game of Whack-A-Mole where the City puts down one pop-up billboard and another one appears — or maybe three.  Perhaps it’s time for a more strategic approach. In the past, the City has revoked the licenses of businesses that have repeatedly
caused enforcement problems. Clark herself remarks,  "Clearly we are dealing with people who are gaming the system. The City Council will shortly be looking at ways to prevent these abuses with tighter standards as well as significantly increasing the monetary penalties for sign code violations."

One regulatory approach the City Council could consider is a variation on the “Floor Area Ratio” method — a long-used and legally tested way to determine the permissible size and bulk of buildings. The way this would work is that say, for every 100 square feet of a use being advertised and occupying the ground floor, there could be one square foot of sign area. For example, a business occupying 10,000 square foot would be allowed a 100 square foot sign. A business occupying (to pick a random number) a 16
square foot booth or closet  would be allowed about 23 square inches. And, if they want, let ‘em use vinyl.

What is happening here seems to be a bit of civic schizophrenia. On the one hand, the City of Seattle has a body of policies and legal actions that say we want fewer billboards. On the other hand, the City is seeing a sleight of hand that allows more billboards to go up. Most of the companies with ads on these faux, on-premises signs presumably have corporate ethics standards. Apple surely has its reputation to maintain. Is it possible that their executives are unaware that their brand is being used to perpetrate a
legal maneuver that, if it is not an outright lie, is at least a cleverly conceived sham?

At least one sign broker who is making these deals has been heard to have said that he is simply providing a “public service.” In his view, Seattle is “under-signed” and needs a lot more big billboards, just like say, Phoenix, Las Vegas, or Kansas City. Yep, that’s right; we should emulate those paragons of crass commercialism.

I suppose its never occurred to these people that this city is viewed as desirable in part because we don’t have such egregious behavior.

This is whole thing should be embarrassing, both to the city government and to the companies being advertised. Seattle is better than that.


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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).