Saturday, December 11, 2010

Seattle Signage Debate

The debate currently developing over signs on buildings, or more precisely VERY LARGE SIGNS on VERY LARGE BUILDINGS, is quite fascinating from a economics case study perspective because it cleanly splits the interests of the public at large from private owners in particular.  Both sides in this debate make compelling arguments on their side and against the other, making any public policy decisions in the legislature, the city council, or the courtroom extremely difficult.

Seattle is in the midst of such a debate now.  Should the city council allow developers and building owners to lease space to tenants and permit the names (but not the logos) of the lessees to be placed on their buildings?  And, once again, both sides are making great points.

A skyline of a city free of huge building topping signs and logos is more naturally beautiful than one filled with signage.  I will admit there are some classic big building signage, like the Citgo sign in Kenmore Square in Boston or the old PanAm sign that gave 200 Park Avenue in New York its name, that is memorable and historic.  Let's not forget the Hollywood sign in Los Angeles, originally an advertisement for a real estate development called Hollywoodland.  These cities would not be the same without these treasures.

But most signage is not attractive.  Some of it is downright ugly.  And too much signage makes a city look like a set in the movie BLADE RUNNER, blaring colors and visual noise, a futuristic nightmare for the eyes.

It is true, legally and morally, that the general public has an interest in a clean and uncluttered skyline.  It can certainly regulate the number of signs and the conditions of their use, exactly as a city controls the number of buildings that go up and how high they rise in the first place.  But can a city ban all signage, or so restrict its use there is an effective ban?

Developers and building owners obviously say no, and they also have a point.  It's THEIR building.  Leasing with signage rights makes attracting tenants easier.  Signs are advertising.  Why can't big corporations and major firms advertise their location like all other businesses?  Don't pizza parlors, used car dealers, and barber shops all put signs out front to attract business?

With real estate vacancy high, especially on Class A commercial properties, the very real estate that would attract Fortune 500 type tenants, restricting or banning signage makes some properties financially uncompetitive relative to those communities that are more liberal towards large signs.  No leases, no jobs.  Does a city really want to lose a major commercial tenant and hundreds of jobs over a sign?

Seattle needs to strike a balance and ultimately the city council will, in some fashion or another, after lots of angry and loud debate, which is part of our local tradition.  Lots of smoke from a relatively small fire.

I expect more signs on the Seattle skyline in the future but probably not as many as there should be.  Remember all those signs I listed above from Boston to LA only got to be famous historic landmarks because someone was first allowed many years ago to install them.