Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space

"A community’s physical form, rather than its land uses, is its most intrinsic and enduring characteristic." [Katz, EPA] This blog focuses on place and placemaking and all that makes it work--historic preservation, urban design, transportation, asset-based community development, arts & cultural development, commercial district revitalization, tourism & destination development, and quality of life advocacy--along with doses of civic engagement and good governance watchdogging.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Signs, signs revisted

This image of this ugly signage-awning on H Street NE, from H Street Great Street blog, illustrates points made below.

Because Suzanne isn't up yet, I have the leeway of being able to watch the DC government television channels right now, and I just saw part of the hearing on the proposal for expanding the ability to have digital signs on the Verizon Center.

Interestingly, property owners of adjacent buildings aren't favorable, seeing the signs as a potential distraction to tenants and viewsheds, and may reduce somewhat the value of their properties and the ability to re-rent space as tenants leave.  The testimony I caught was by people affiliated with the building across the street.

An interesting sidebar is that apparently the lead tenant of the building, a law firm that does business with the Verizon Center owners, told Councilwoman Alexander that they were fine with the signs--why would they tell her that they disagree with a major client?  And the building owner made the point that if and when the law firm moves, then the building is left with-encumbered by the potentially negative effects of the sign changes.

Terry Bellamy, Director of the DC Department of Transportation, supported by Alice Kelly, who works on public space policy, testified about an intragovernmental task force on updating the city's sign regulations.  Apparently this is in part an initiative spurred by concerns expressed by the Federal Highway Administration, that signs on certain streets do not meet regulations concerning roads funded in part by federal transportation monies.

I didn't know about that task force, but it does remind me of some testimony/writing related to the approval of the H Street commercial district zoning overlay specifically, but it is based on the general point that achieving quality signage in traditional commercial districts in the city needs to be a higher priority, that sign design needs to be regulated and reviewed more carefully than it is (basically it isn't at all, except in historic districts).

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Reprinted from March 2005
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The neighborhood organizations in the H Street NE area are considering the matter of the creation of a Neighborhood Commercial District Overlay to help guide changes and improvements in the commercial district. The text is online here: Proposed: H Street Zoning Overlay courtesy of ANC6A.

The basic zoning proposal is decent, but both ANC6A and ANC6C raised a number of points. I raised the issue of signs, and both ANCs are endorsing a recommendation that sign guidelines be added to the zoning overlay. Below I offer language on why signage guidelines are important, a specific request for their addition to the proposed NC Zoning Overlay for H Street, and mechanisms for providing guidance and review.

Thank you to Nancy Metzger, Emily Paulus, Derrick Woody (for writing Thrive) and others I probably have missed, for assistance in preparing this recommendation.
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Storefronts are the most prominent feature of buildings in traditional neighborhood commercial districts and play a crucial role in a store's advertising and merchandising strategy. The functional and decorative features of storefronts are key to defining the overall character of the building and contribute to the coherence and distinctiveness of the commercial district as a defined destination with a sense of identity and place. The DC Office of Planning has acknowledged this importance through the publication of Thrive: A Guide To Storefront Design In The District of Columbia.

Throughout the city's commercial areas, signs play a major role in creating either a positive or negative visual image. Signs should make a positive contribution to the general appearance of the street and commercial area in which they are located. As stated in Thrive, "The character of your storefront signage and that of your neighboring businesses contributes tremendously to how your business and your business district are perceived."

Guidelines are in place for commercial storefront improvements, outdoor seating areas and commercial signs on historic buildings or in historic districts. But unlike the existing NC Overlay Districts, H Street NE is not a designated historic district, although the pre-1955 building stock is eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places.*

Because the neighborhood is not designated, overall design guidelines that normally pertain to buildings in the other NC districts are not applicable to H Street NE. This accounts for the special design provisions in Section 1324 of the proposed overlay.

Because of the importance of signage to the perceptions of residents, visitors, and current and prospective customers, and because of the impact on investment by other business proprietors, property owners, and other stakeholders in the commercial district, Advisory Neighborhood Commission 6C recommends that sign guidelines be added to Section 1324 "H Street Northeast Commercial Corridor Design Requirements" of the the proposed NC Overlay District for H Street NE.

This is recommended because the Sign Regulations that exist as part of 12DCMR, "The Building Code" administered by DCRA, are not concerned with or intended to achieve overall quality signage environments where individual signs:
  1. are integrated into the particular architectural character of the building and neighborhood;
  2. follow historical precedent of a particular building or of historic District of Columbia architecture generally, in form and in placement on the building;
  3. are primarily pedestrian oriented;
  4. are designed with lettering, colors and materials that complement and fit into surrounding architectural context and character of the H Street commercial district;
  5. approximate the quality of materials, designs, and workmanship of surrounding architecture; and
  6. where the lighting of signs is to be considered as part of the aesthetic illumination of the overall display and/or architecture. The illumination should be subtle, pedestrian oriented, and not in competition with adjacent illuminated signs.
ANC6C recommends that Section 1324.14 be added to include sign guidelines. This section could refer to a specific resource with more specific criteria detailing these requirements.
Model guidelines include:

(1) The Historic Preservation Design Guidelines of the DC Historic Preservation Review Board/DC Office of Planning Historic Preservation Office, particularly the section on "Signs on Historic Commercial Buildings;"  [note that since this was written, signage guidance by DC HPO has been codified in the document Design Guidelines for Historic Commercial Buildings]

(2) The Barracks Row Main Street Sign Guidelines;

(3) or Storefront Guidelines currently being developed by the ReSTORE DC program of the Office of the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development.

Further, we recommend that such guidelines be administered through the design review procedures currently in place through the DC Historic Preservation Office. It is our understanding that design review services for designated Main Street programs are made available through that office via funds provided by the Deputy Mayor's Office. The proposed HS NC Overlay District is also a designated Main Street district recognized by the ReSTORE DC DC Main Streets program and is therefore eligible for such services.
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Notes

* Two buildings, 1365 H Street, site of the H Street Playhouse, and 1333 H Street, the address for the Atlas Theater complex, have been designated as landmarks by the DC Historic Preservation Review Board. By being listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the Atlas Performing Arts Center is able to take advantage of Federal Historic Tax Credits, which will contribute upwards of $4 million towards the $14 million required to finish the renovation project.

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