What Price Seattle’s Skyline?

There’s a debate brewing regarding the proposed updates to Seattle’s sign ordinance. Should City Council pass legislation that amends the sign ordinance to allow large signs on buildings in downtown zones to be placed more than sixty-five feet above ground level under certain circumstances?

City Council’s Regional Development and Sustainability Committee held a public hearing on December 7th regarding this matter. Over twenty people testified against allowing these changes while a small handful spoke in support. Council also received many written comments opposing the change, including letters from University of Washington architecture professors, Historic Seattle, the Washington Trust for Historic Preservation and scores of design professionals, residents and concerned citizens. So what’s the big deal? What was anticipated as a minor change to the land use code that would fly under the radar has mushroomed into a controversial issue. The proposed legislation was written for one business, Russell Investments, which recently moved into the WaMu Center after pulling up stakes and leaving its original home, Tacoma.

The Seattle skyline is an evolving feature of this city’s urban form. It changes each decade with layers of new buildings mixing in with older structures and sometimes replacing them. Seattle prides itself on its skyline—anchored by iconic structures such as the Space Needle and Smith Tower and punctuated with taller skyscrapers from the 1980s through 2000s. What is attractive about the Seattle skyline from different vantage points is that it is not marred by over scaled, corporate signs that serve as advertisements for businesses. These are to be distinguished from historic neon signs that were custom-made and unique. The proposed changes to the sign ordinance are counter to the goals of the Comprehensive Plan and to the long-established City policy against dotting the urban landscape with advertising (billboards and ads on bus stop shelters). While the proposed changes to the sign ordinance benefit a special class of tenants who lease a minimum of 200,000 square feet of gross floor area and apply to a handful of buildings, the adverse impact on downtown could potentially be great, making it a broader urban design issue that matters to all of us. Will changes to the sign ordinance be made in the future for other tenants who lease less space?

Some argue that the signage issue is about jobs and the economy. Since when does having a sign near the top of a building visible only to those on ferries in Elliot Bay translate into more jobs? It’s about advertising. Seattle’s central business district has weathered economic ups and downs since the late 19th century. Allowing large corporate signs facing Elliot Bay or I-5 will not help the economy. Seattle was built on the strength of its various industries, from large companies to small businesses, all operating together to create an economic engine. It’s the buildings, large and small, that create Seattle’s skyline and make it special, not the signs.

City Council has wisely postponed voting on the proposed legislation (originally scheduled for committee vote December 17 and full Council vote January 3, 2011) so that it may consider the issue more thoroughly and better understand the implications of the proposal.

A better approach is to look at the sign ordinance more comprehensively and make improvements more thoughtfully, rather than changing it to benefit a special class of property and business owners. There is no doubt that we all support a vibrant downtown and business environment.

For a more detailed look at the issue, view the following articles:

“Council delays voting on signs” (Seattle Times, December 10, 2010)

“What Seattle’s skyline says about us” (Knute Berger, Crosscut, December 10, 2010)

“Seattle City Council should reject push for signs atop downtown buildings” (Seattle Times editorial, December 9, 2010)

“Seattle Skyline and Signs” (Councilmember Nick Licata’s Blog, December 8, 2010)

“Discord over signs on downtown buildings” (Seattle Times, December 7, 2010)

“Battle over skyscraper signs today” (The Stranger SLOG, December 7, 2010)

“Don’t vandalize Seattle’s skyline with unsightly illuminated signs” (Guest columnist Jeffrey Karl Ochsner, Seattle Times, December 1, 2010)