This story was originally published at The C is for Crank.
Four years ago (an eternity in technological innovation terms) the Seattle City Council adopted new regulations intended to address what they worried was a coming onslaught of large billboards on the sides of Seattle buildings, especially downtown.
The rules cracked down on the proliferation of “off-premises signs”—signs advertising products or services that weren’t offered in the buildings where they were displayed. Among other changes, the legislation closed some of the loopholes that allowed Alaska Airlines, for example, to claim it operated out of a building in Chinatown because it placed an ancient computer terminal in the lobby where people could theoretically buy plane tickets; it also limited the size of new wall signs to 672 square feet (previously, there were no specific size limits). The off-premises sign rules are still far from strict or strictly enforced, which is why you’ll see a sign advertising energy drinks, for example, on the wall of a building that houses a gym or convenience store.
Separately, back in 2011, the council rejected a proposal, pushed by Russell Investments, to allow companies (other than hotels) to display large illuminated logos on the tops of downtown buildings, which is why you don’t see logos all over Seattle’s downtown skyline. The council’s decisions didn’t make ugly signs go away (on-premises signs are still subject to few restrictions, which is why visitors to SoDo will still see huge video displays advertising “Amateur Night!” outside the Dream Girls strip club), but they kept them (sort of) down to size.
Fast forward to 2018, and the intersection of Fourth and Union downtown, where the owners of one building (1408 Fourth Ave.) are testing the limits of the city’s sign ordinance, with a large electronic billboard that alternates between ads for an eye clinic and leasing opportunities in the building and large-format images of screensaver-style images of flowers and hot air balloons.
Paula Rees, a Seattle-based planner and designer who specializes in building public spaces, says the sign, which is located across the street from her downtown office, goes “against everything the code states as its intention”—it’s distracting, it creates visual pollution, and it advertises multiple businesses inside a single building.
“This sign was predicted,” Rees says. “Many professionals testified about this mess coming when Sally Clark’s ill-considered legislation was before Council.” The reason there haven’t been more digital signs before now “is that nobody could afford it. When I first started seeing this stuff at conferences, a Barco [digital] sign that was 45 inches square could be hundreds of thousands of dollars. Now you can buy this stuff for hardly anything.”
The owner of the building is an LLC registered to Ann and Danny Schnitzer, who also are the registered agents for Sun Advertising, a billboard company registered at the same address, 11221 Pacific Hwy SW in Lakewood, as 4th Avenue Bldg LLC and at least 18 other businesses. I left messages for both Ann and Danny Schnitzer; Ann called me back and said she would respond to my questions by email; I called back several days later to make sure she had my correct email address and never heard back.
Council member Mike O’Brien bikes by the sign every day on his way home from work and says he noticed it a few weeks ago. "I was like, ‘Holy cow, that has to be illegal,'" O’Brien says. "If the guy doing like my eye appointments can put up a sign like that, I can only imagine every building [with a business that] that sells Coca-Cola would be jumping at that opportunity.”
Seattle Department of Construction and Inspections spokesman Bryan Stevens says the sign doesn’t violate any rules. “When the permit for this changing image sign was issued, we stipulated that the sign was only for use by the building owner (4th Avenue Building LLC) and is authorized to only display static images that change no more than 7 times per minute (otherwise it becomes video), no off-premises advertising, no flashing, no video display methods (movement) or moving text/images, in accordance with our land use code for on-premises signs in downtown zones.” The sign code allows one sign like the one at Fourth and Union every 300 “lineal feet” of street frontage, which works out to about one sign per block.
To Rees, the sign might as well be a giant, illuminated Pandora’s Box. “Since the ’70s, we’ve just kept burying our heads in the sand on the sign code,” Rees says. As long as the city fails to get ahead of technology, she adds, “we’re going to get whatever we get.”