A proposal allow signs on the upper floors of downtown office buildings has been developed by the Department of Planning and Development (DPD) and transmitted to the Council with the support of Mayor McGinn.  Because it relates to economic development, the proposal is currently under consideration in my Committee.  It was initiated in response to a request by Russell Investments when they decided to relocate to the former Washington Mutual Building at 1301 2nd Avenue.

The legislation would limit signs to employers who occupy at least 200,000 square feet in a single building over 500 feet in height.  There are only six or seven companies who would qualify, so the proposed change is modest in scope.  However, because a number of questions have been raised, the Council has decided to ask DPD to respond to questions and consider possible modifications, and to hold the legislation until March of next year.

Most commenters have expressed fears that this could compromise the appearance of the downtown skyline, particularly if it was only the first in a series of changes that could open a wider door for signage.  I appreciate the seriousness of this concern, and we will consider ways to prevent unintended consequences.  Among the ideas under consideration are explicit limits on the number of signs or a sunset provision that would allow signs for an interim period and require them to be removed at the end of that period if the Council determined that there were problematic impacts.

Other commenters have more visceral concerns about corporate signage representing an increase in the proliferation of advertising and corporate presence that is a broader cultural issue in our society.  I understand this perspective and the uneasiness about this aspect of our society and economy.

However, the actual impact of the legislation before us is very limited.  It allows only about 1000 square feet of signage on a limited number of buildings.  It does not allow ‘giant lighted billboards’ or turn the Seattle skyline into Las Vegas.  Seattle currently allows similar signs, in some cases larger than those that this legislation would permit, in the following locations:

  • Outside of downtown, such as the UW sign on the former Safeco building in the University District, the Starbucks symbol on the former Sears building, and the new Harborview building;
  • Within downtown below 65 feet, such as the Pike Place Market sign;
  • Within downtown above 65 feet for hotels.

The proposed code change would limit the signs to letters ten feet in height, would require signs to be on the sides of buildings (not tops), would require them to contain only company names, with no blinking, flashing, scrolling, or video lighting (only a soft white backlight), and would not allow them in historic districts.  These signs would be small enough that they would not be noticeable in the iconic images of the Seattle skyline.  The proposed corporate identification signs would be similar to the signs currently on the Sheraton and Westin hotels, which have raised no concerns that I am aware of since hotels were permitted to have them in 1996.

Seattle’s economic development strategy is designed around supporting and growing businesses already in Seattle.  We believe that using subsidies and incentives to draw businesses to relocate here from other places is generally ineffective, and is also not compatible with our governmental philosophy.

When Russell Investments approached us, therefore, to tell us they were considering relocating to Seattle, we welcomed them and their 900 jobs, but did not create a package of proposals to subsidize this move.  They requested that we use the same Business and Occupations tax rate that they paid in Tacoma, which was approved in 2009.  Russell also asked that Seattle allow them to have a sign identifying their business.  We told them we would consider it if there were n o adverse effects.  DPD analyzed the environmental impacts through the SEPA process, and concluded that there would be no adverse environmental consequences.  The DPD determination was affirmed on appeal.

While the proposed signage is a very minor component of any economic development strategy, it was also a modest request, and one that conceivably could be useful in the future for another company that wanted to relocate.  Company names on buildings assist in identifying companies and in wayfinding.  Given the lack of environmental or visual impact, it seems like a modest request in a time when filling downtown office space and providing jobs is a high priority in this severe recession.  For those reasons, I continue to believe that this can be reasonable legislation, and I hope that we can develop adequate information and safeguards to assure those who are concerned so that it can proceed forward.