The Seattle City Council is bracing against unexpected blowback from a proposal to allow illuminated signs on downtown skyscrapers. A token offer to Russell Investments (which recently moved from Tacoma into the largely vacant former WaMu Center), the bill sponsored by council president Richard Conlin has drawn objections from a fleet of historic-preservation groups and architects. A University of Washington professor wrote in the Seattle Times on December 1 that the proposal would "turn the downtown skyline into a giant billboard" and "vandalize" the city.
"I can appreciate the fear of the city turning into a Blade Runner world," says Council Member Mike O'Brien. "But you can look at what Russell wants to do and say it looks fine." A mock-up shows a thin white strip of letters across one face of its building.
Under the proposed rules, only six or seven downtown buildings would be eligible for a sign. To qualify, a building must be taller than 500 feet and house a tenant that occupies more than 200,000 square feet of the same building where the sign appears (the tenants with that much space downtown are Safeco Insurance in two buildings, Bank of America, Perkins Coie, Nordstrom, Russell Investments, and K&L Gates). The signs would have to be white, they couldn't blink or rotate, and they could promote only one tenant. The law would allow up to four signs per building at 324 square feet each, or two signs up to 648 square feet each. However, Russell is lobbying for an exception to post a single sign up to 1,080 square feet.
I asked an opponent of the legislation, neighborhood activist Bill Bradburd, about the ramifications he feared. "I don't know," he said. "What happens if we tattoo a Nike swoosh on our foreheads? We lose some sense of the public realm. Seattle is recognized as a place of natural beauty."
Jon Scholes, policy director of the Downtown Seattle Association (DSA), which supports the bill to draw businesses into the city core, calls accusations from opponents "hyperbole."
"We need to remind ourselves that the skyline is not a naturally occurring feature in our landscape," says Scholes. "It's made of glass and steel and concrete. We're not talking about putting a sign atop Mount Rainier."
Preservation groups are leading the charge to stop the bill. Twenty-seven members of the UW architecture school sent a letter to the mayor and city council, saying it "overturns a half-century of treasuring and protecting the downtown skyline, and betrays any claim to sustainability." Historic Seattle is also staunchly opposed, as is Council Member Nick Licata, who sent a letter to his colleagues on December 6 that said the council should reconsider amending existing sign regulations. Licata introduced a resolution on December 7 asking the city's Department of Planning and Development to come back to the council by May with a report on new rules that would contribute to "the city's image and not result in the needless proliferation of signage."
For his part, Conlin sounds surprised by the blowback. "We actually thought initially, and it turned out not to be true, this would be a modest and not very controversial piece of legislation," he says. However, he acknowledges concerns that "this is a gateway drug that you might regret later on."
Nonetheless, Conlin says, "fundamentally, I am supportive of the concept. I don't think this turns downtown into a giant billboard, and I don't think it vandalizes the city."
The fear that the city could grow into a logo forest seems unfounded under this proposal—nor have the handful of building signs around town ruined the city (including KeyArena, the iconic Seattle P-I ball, the "W" logo on the University of Washington building in the U-District, etc.).
If the fear is that we may end up with more big tenants with big signs, that we attract another company renting 200,000 square feet—well, we should be so lucky. This may be one way to do that without tax breaks or cutting city services.
Downtown has lost 20,000 jobs within the last decade while other cities in King County have gained jobs, DSA's Scholes says, and signs could be a business boon that "distinguishes and identifies Seattle's economic brand." He says the signs "are clearly important to some companies."
That said, there should be a couple conditions: First, companies should pay a steep permit fee that makes it worthwhile for the city. Second, there should be a sunset provision for review. If, say, after 10 years we truly resent the signs, then we pull 'em down.