By Lynn Thompson
In an artist's rendering, the illuminated sign that Russell Investments wants to install in the upper corner of its new downtown Seattle office building is as understated as corporate letterhead.
But a number of community activists and architects say a proposal before the City Council to allow signs up to 18 feet tall on downtown buildings would defile the skyline and give corporations valuable advertising space, essentially for free.
"We have a city with a remarkable skyline in a beautiful natural setting. Why would we want to deface it with corporate signs and logos? And to just give it away?" asked Jeffrey Ochsner, a University of Washington architecture professor who is among 27 architecture faculty members who oppose the proposal.
The business community, including the Chamber of Commerce and Downtown Seattle Association, says the change to the sign ordinance would attract new businesses and reduce downtown vacancy rates, which they say hover around 25 percent.
"It's important to identify Seattle's economic brand and to celebrate those large institutions that have chosen Seattle for their future," Kate Joncas, president of the Downtown Seattle Association, told City Council members at a public hearing Tuesday.
A City Council committee vote is expected Dec. 17 and the full council could take action Jan. 3.
Seattleites long have had a love-hate relationship with commercial signs. They love the revolving Elephant Car Wash sign on Denny Way and the Post-Intelligencer globe at the northern end of the Elliott Bay waterfront.
Yet, when KeyBank financed part of the renovation of Seattle Center Coliseum and wanted to put its neon-red logo atop the building in 1995, neighbors in Queen Anne protested, ultimately unsuccessfully.
Similarly, in 1999, when owners of the Space Needle said they wanted to light up the beloved landmark, a UW astronomy professor denounced the proposal as "all glitz and a wanton waste of electricity."
The proposal before the council would apply to companies that lease at least 200,000 square feet in an office building. One sign per side would be allowed, and only on an upper, side portion of the building, not the roof. Only white lettering would be allowed and the signs could not flash or revolve.
Companies could erect four signs up to 324 square feet each. Or they could erect two signs up to 628 square feet each.
Proposed signs would have to be reviewed by the Seattle Design Commission.
Council President Richard Conlin, who supports the change, notes that branding lights already exist across the city: the big UW atop what used to be the Safeco building in the University District; the glowing green Starbucks logo, complete with mermaid, on the former Sears building in Sodo.
Such signs just aren't allowed in the downtown business core, except at hotels. Permission for those buildings was granted in 1995 on the theory that wandering tourists wouldn't be able to find their way back without them.
Conlin said the current proposal likely wouldn't apply to more than 10 buildings. "We don't want to be Las Vegas, but I think this is a fairly minor change," Conlin said after Tuesday's public hearing.
Bellevue in 2004 adopted a sign ordinance similar to what now is proposed for Seattle, and several skyscrapers there are emblazoned with recognizable corporate logos including Microsoft, Eddie Bauer and Puget Sound Energy.
Carol Helland, Bellevue's land-use director, said the signs can only face Interstate 405, not nearby neighborhoods and not Lake Washington.
The Seattle proposal also is controversial because it is being made at the request of one company — Russell Investments — which was lured to Seattle from its Tacoma headquarters last year. The company has settled its 900 workers into its space at the 42-story former WaMu Center on Second Avenue, almost smack in the middle of the downtown skyline.
To land Russell, Seattle, under then-Mayor Greg Nickels, offered a break on the city's business-and-occupation tax worth about $450,000 per year.
When the company announced its move, Conlin said the city didn't offer other major concessions, but would be open to changing Seattle's sign ordinance to allow Russell to put its logo on its building.
Russell's lobbyist to the council is Tim Ceis, deputy mayor under Nickels.
Russell already has asked for an amendment to the proposal that would allow it to install one sign that is 1,080 square feet.
Councilmember Nick Licata questioned a change in the existing sign ordinance at the request of one company without a thorough review of all sign rules.
"What I'm seeing is a lot of e-mail from people pretty adamantly opposed [to the proposal]. They're very passionate that they don't want their skyline for sale."