Updated with Nick Licata's resolution to postpone the bill, Historic Seattle's opposition, the UW school of architecture's letter of objection, the Downtown Seattle Association's support, and the latest amendment to allow larger signs.

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At 2:00 p.m., the Seattle City Council's development and sustainability committee will take comments on a controversial proposal to allow illuminated signs on downtown skyscrapers. A token offer to Russell Investments (the firm recently moved from Tacoma into the largely vacant former WaMu Center), the bill sponsored by Council President Richard Conlin is assured to draw more heat. A UW architect wrote in the Seattle Times last week 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.” Here's a rendering of what Russell Investments wants to do:

This mock-up depicts a 1,000 square foot sign, which is larger than what would be allowed under the proposed ordinance
  • Courtesy Russell Investments
  • CLICK TO ENLARGE: This mock-up depicts a 1,000 square foot sign, which is larger than what would be allowed under the proposed ordinance

Can't see the sign way up there? Here's a close up:

russell_investements_sign_small.jpg
  • Courtesy Russell Investements

Under the proposed rules, signs would, for practical purposes, only be allowed on about six or seven downtown buildings. 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 (no signs from random companies on any old building). The signs would have to be white, they couldn’t blink or rotate, and they could only promote 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. Russell’s mock-up actually assumes it’s one 1,000 square foot sign, and the company is pushing amendments today to allow one sign up to 1,080 square feet and allow illumination from LEDs (provided they are no brighter than neon). All of the signs would have to be designed in consultation with the city’s design commission.

More after the jump.

I asked an opponent of the legislation, neighborhood activist Bill Bradburd, what the ramification would be if the law were approved. "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, the common spaces now have advertising on them. Are you bothered by a proliferation of advertising on our TVs, on our internets? We’re just inundated with stuff. Seattle is recognized as a place of natural beauty. For me, I think we are cheapening the value of Seattle."

But Jon Scholes, policy director of the Downtown Seattle Association (DSA), calls some accusations from opponents “hyperbole.”

“We need to remind ourselves that the skyline is not a naturally occurring feature in our landscape,” Scholes says. “It’s made of glass and steel and concrete. We’re not talking about putting a sign atop Mount Rainier.”

Downtown has lost 20,000 jobs within the last decade while other cities in King County have gained jobs, Scholes says, and the signs could be a business boon that “distinguishes and identifies Seattle’s economic brand.” He says the signs are “are clearly important to some companies.” The DSA board voted last week to support the bill.

While some folks hold the fear that the city could grow into a logo forest, but that seems unlikely under this proposal—nor do the signs we have already ruin the city. Signs currently allowed include the bank logo on Key Arena, the iconic Seattle PI ball, the “W” logo on the University of Washington building in the U-District, not to mention the logos on the stadiums.

If the fear is that we may get more—that is, that we attract another tenant downtown with 200,000 square feet of space—we should be so lucky. We’re desperate to fill craters of vacant downtown office space, desperate for more people to live in the condos and apartments at the city’s core, and desperate for people walking on downtown streets and spending money in local businesses. This may be one way to do it without tax breaks or impacting city services.

But if we do it, there should be a couple conditions: First, the 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 resents the signs—then we pull 'em down.

Preservation groups seems to be leading the charge to stop the bill. Twenty seven members of the architecture school sent a letter (.pdf) to the mayor and city council opposing the bill today. They say the bill "overturns a half-century of treasuring and protecting the downtown skyline, and betrays any claim to sustainability."

Meanwhile, Historic Seattle also sent a letter today to Conlin (.pdf), saying, "What is attractive about the Seattle skyline from different vantage points is that is not marred by overscaled, corporate signs that serve as advertisements for businesses."

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City council member Nick Licata sent a letter to his colleagues yesterday that says the council should reconsider amending the sign regulations. Existing signs are undervalued, and the city's goal, all along, has been to serve as wayfinding tools instead of objects that attract attention, he says. Licata plans to introduce a resolution today asking the city's Department of Planning and Development to come back to the council by May with a report on how to 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, we though this would be a modest and not-very-controversial piece of legislation," he says. "And at this point, that may not be true and we may have to re-think it."

But, he says, "Fundamentally, I am supportive of the concept. I don’t think this turns the downtown in a giant billboard and I don’t think it vandalizes the city."