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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."

http://seattletimes.nwsource.com/html/localnews/2013620766_signordinance08m.html
 

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I don't really have a problem with it. I guess they should keep the signs from getting too large though.

"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."

The skyline exists because of the companies these people are complaining about.
 

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It has never bothered me in other cities. Conversely, I don't really see the advertising benefit of having the signs, either. It's not like I'm suddenly going to be moving my nonexistant millions into Russell Investments because I saw the sign on their building.

:shrugs:
 

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I'm against big corporate sings on buildings, just like I'm against billboards and other aggressive forms of advertising in the public realm - go to Santa Barbara, CA and see for yourself how beautiful does a city look without billboards.

I as well, don't see an advertising benefit of having signs on top/side of the buildings - especially barely visible ones like in this case.
 

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The rendering on King5 shows signs taking up the entire top of all the biggest Seattle skyscrapers. A bit misleading, Id say. I think the hippie-ish people around here get up in arms about stupid things. Maybe if they traveled to other cities once in a while they'd see its kind of a non-issue.
 

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The rendering on King5 shows signs taking up the entire top of all the biggest Seattle skyscrapers. A bit misleading, Id say.
Not necessarily. The article states that Russell has already asked for an amendment to the ordinance that would let their sign grow from 300 sq. ft. to over 1,000 sq. ft. If they get away with it, everyone else will want to do the same.

Also note that the rendering with the proposed signage is at an angle which has the effect of minimizing the signage because it "lengthens" the building. If the signage were superimposed on the first picture, it would cover about half of the building's width.

That may still not bother some people but one of the things I like about Seattle is our lack of in-your-face advertising downtown. There are few billboards, no ads on bus shelters, etc. We don't need to commodify everything. Or think of it this way: Would we allow buildings to emit a noise or an odor that would be noticeable from several miles away if that was considered a way for them to advertise themselves? Why do we treat visual impact any differently?
 

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There are few billboards, no ads on bus shelters, etc.
I was in the University Street transit tunnel station a few days ago and I was pleased to see some huge ads on the walls. Earn some money and liven the space up a bit. Maybe I don't mind these as long as they're decent ads and they change often enough not to get too boring.
 

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I think moderation is the key here. Modest corporate signs and/or logos might be perfectly fine and few would notice.

I'm interested in other cities regulations on this. How about SF, Boston, Chicago, even Denver? Seems to me I have seen signs in those cities,but not sure about SF. (I have also seen some rather garish signs in other countries, not sure we want that)
 

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I was in the University Street transit tunnel station a few days ago and I was pleased to see some huge ads on the walls. Earn some money and liven the space up a bit. Maybe I don't mind these as long as they're decent ads and they change often enough not to get too boring.
I second this. For some reason I enjoy seeing ads in transit areas and on the trains. It breaks the starkness or something.
 

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Did the building in the U District that used to have a SAFECO sign and now says University of Washington bother people?
Loopholes/incentives: Existing buildings already ugly as heck must have signage. Signage allowed on towers outside signature CBD postcard photography zone. Signage allowed on towers 200' or taller which create new in-city skylines.
 
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