Signless In Seattle? Urban Designers Hope So

fromKPLU

Seattle is considering allowing large corporate signs atop its tallest buildings. Other cities already allow such branding. The hope is to attract new renters. Seattle's downtown vacancy rate is 17 percent. But the move is under fire from urban designers who don't want corporate names and logos besmirching the city's look.

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Imagine Seattle, and you might see images of the Space Needle or Mount Rainier, probably not giant, corporate signs. But a new ordinance would allow some companies to hang their logos atop the city's skyscrapers. From member station KPLU, Bellamy Pailthorp reports.

BELLAMY PAILTHORP: A stunning view greets visitors to the 25th floor offices of the Greater Seattle Chamber of Commerce. With blustery skies and the Olympic Mountains as a backdrop, Elliott Bay is framed by dozens of skyscrapers. Business development manager Steve Gerritson looks out the window at a shiny new tower that's right in the middle of the Seattle skyline.

Mr. STEVE GERRITSON (Business Development Manager): You can see right through several of the floors. They're absolutely empty. So we really need to start filling the office space downtown.

PAILTHORP: The building he's looking at is the former headquarters of Seattle's famously failed Washington Mutual Bank. Many of its floors have now been taken over by Russell Investments. Russell wants to rebrand the building by putting a 10-foot tall, illuminated sign with its corporate logo on the top of the tower. That would require a change to the city's municipal code, which currently outlaws such signage. With Seattle's commercial vacancy rate heading toward 20 percent, Gerritson thinks the change is necessary.

Mr. GERRITSON: One of the few ways that we can show that we're a business-friendly community is by allowing companies that operate here like many other cities do to put up signs advertising their presence.

PAILTHORP: Russell Investments says putting up its sign would help it become a catalyst for an expanded financial sector. And it would show how competitive Seattle can be as it attempts to win new businesses. The Chamber's Senior Vice President George Allen says they've worked with the city council to craft legislation that would preserve the beauty of the skyline.

Mr. GEORGE ALLEN (Senior Vice President, Greater Seattle Chamber of Commerce): The lighting cannot be garish. Signs cannot spin. They cannot flash. They cannot be sort of video-oriented. They have to be very static, very controlled, and they have to be very tastefully done.

Professor JEFFREY OCHSNER (Architecture, University of Washington): Look at this view. Why would you mess with this?

PAILTHORP: Jeffrey Ochsner is a professor of architecture at the University of Washington. He stands on the other side of Elliott Bay. There's the futuristic Space Needle in the north, Mount Rainier to the south and ferry boats in the foreground. Ochsner says he loves the way the cityscape nestles into its natural surroundings.

Prof. OCHSNER: It's just unbelievable how great this is.

PAILTHORP: He fears the skyline will soon be vandalized - not just by Russell's logo, but by more and more corporate clutter. And he doesn't buy the argument that the change would help the region's economy.

Prof. OCHSNER: Companies do not move to cities because there are signs on the skylines. The cities that have allowed signs on the skyline are places like Detroit and Pittsburgh. And I would question whether those are the cities we ought to be emulating.

PAILTHORP: He says Pittsburgh is now struggling to tone down its commercial signage. Supporters of Seattle's new ordinance say it would only allow signs from companies occupying at least 200,000 square feet. At this point, that means only a handful would qualify. But for opponents like Ochsner, it's a slippery slope.

Prof. OCHSNER: In my mind, there is no compromise. You either allow signs on the skyline and deface it forever, or you protect the skyline as we have for 50 years.

PAILTHORP: But business boosters and even Seattle's environmentally-minded mayor, Mike McGinn, say there are much more outrageous demands companies could make.

Mayor MIKE MCGINN (Seattle, Washington): This is a small ask, to have a sign up if you're a major employer and to kind of get that recognition.

PAILTHORP: He says the signs would help the city show off some of its iconic businesses, such as Nordstrom, Starbucks and Amazon.com. The city council plans to vote early next year on whether corporate signs would clutter the skyline or become part of the city's civic pride.

For NPR news, I'm Bellamy Pailthorp, in Seattle.�

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