City Hall

Design Commission: Don't Allow Signs on Top of Downtown Buildings

By Erica C. Barnett February 15, 2011

The volunteer Seattle Design Commission, which advises the city on design issues, has recommended that the city council reject a proposal to allow lighted company logos above a height of 65 feet on downtown buildings with large corporate tenants.

Late last year, the city council postponed a vote on the proposed change to the city's sign code, which was tailored to allow Russell Investments, which moved to Seattle from Tacoma last year, to display its logo on the top of its new headquarters, the former Washington Mutual Building. The sign code currently prohibits lighted signs above 65 feet except "wayfinding" signs, such as signs for hotels. The changes would affect about 10 downtown buildings (to be eligible, companies would have to lease at least 200,000 square feet in an office building).

"Ultimately, we asked ourselves the simple question: 'Will this amendment improve and enhance the public realm?'," the commission wrote. "The answer we came to was no. The signs as allowed in the ordinance will not improve our skyline or support many of our civic goals stated in the Comprehensive Plan."

However, the commission said it was open to additional changes to the sign code. "A city is not a museum. ... Signs are not necessarily negative additions to the built downtown fabric. Signs that the public interacts with from street level add interest and liveliness to the urban experience as well as deliver information. The City should do its best to regulate signage in a way that enhances urban vitality and allows innovation while enriching the overall aesthetic quality and comfort of the pedestrian realm."

City council president Richard Conlin, who supported the change to the sign code, says that although he isn't ready to "make any judgment at this point"---the Planning Commission and Department of Planning and Development still have to weigh in---the Design Commission's recommendation is "certainly very significant. It's a very important statement on their part."

DPD and the planning commission should have a recommendation for the council by March, and the council will likely reconsider the sign changes sometime in April, Conlin says.
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