Council Review of HARC Decision on Merrill Lynch Sign at Tamiro Plaza

signIn this picture you’re looking at a sign that Merrill Lynch wants to tack up on the Tamiro Plaza’s wall on Austin Avenue, 2.5 feet tall, and lit up at night and weekends – to advertise that it’s closed!

Merrill asked HARC – our Historic and Architectural Review Commission – to amend the Master Sign Plan for this building to give them this sign rather than their pre-approved signage. HARC turned down the request, which automatically gives Merrill the right to appeal directly to our City Council.

If you value the historic look of our downtown you must attend the Council meeting on Tuesday, September 22, at 6 p.m. in the Council Chamber at 101 E. 7th Street – this is a showdown.

Merrill has no case, they’re asking for a political favor, and they may get it unless we show the City Council our support for HARC. It’s not necessary to speak, simply show up and give us your silent support as we speak against the Merrill plan.

Bring your neighbors – numbers count – when the Council members see public support they will be guided by this.

Several people on the Council have questioned the value of HARC in the past, and the rumor persists that some people want to destroy HARC completely – which will open the doors for unregulated favoritism to destroy our carefully nurtured historic appeal.

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To learn the ins and outs of the case, we encourage you to read the documents shown below. Scroll down to find the documents that will be presented at the appeal hearing, including the Staff Report on the case, Merrill Lynch’s letter of appeal and the minutes of the original HARC hearing.

There is also the crucial Exhibit E, the relevant section of our own law that requires the Council to presume HARC’s decision to be valid, and to restrict itself to a review of the evidence. In other words, members of the Council cannot simply follow their own whims in this matter, they have to think like HARC and act like HARC. This may be hard for them to do, so we have to show up to keep them focused.

Exhibit E presents the Criteria for Approval that HARC must use to determine the merits of any case. The Council is required to use the same criteria in hearing the appeal.

The Council is required to act like HARC

Our own law places requirements and restraints upon the Council to hear this appeal. The Staff Report (the first document shown below before the Exhibits) on page 6 at Item 8 advises the Council:

Page 6 of the Staff Report at item 8 advises the Council of this:
8. Deliberation and Decision by the City Council – The Council shall deliberate and take final action on the appeal. Per Section 3.13.080(B) of the UDC, the HARC action is presumed to be valid. The person filing the appeal has the duty to present sufficient evidence and has the burden to justify a reversal of the action being appealed. Per Section 3.13.080(C) of the UDC, all findings and conclusion necessary to the appeal decision by the City Council shall be based on reliable evidence. Competent evidence (evidence admissible in a court of law) will be preferred whenever reasonably available, but in no case may findings be based solely on incompetent evidence unless competent evidence is not reasonably available, the evidence in question appears to be particularly reliable, and the matter at issue is not seriously disputed. The City Council may reverse, affirm, in whole or in part, or modify the HARC decision and make the correct order, requirement, decision or determination, and for that purpose has the same authority as the HARC. Per the requirements of Section 3.13.080(D) of the UDC, a concurring vote of a majority of the City Council members present is required to overturn a HARC decision on a Certificate of Design Compliance.

8. Deliberation and Decision by the City Council – The Council shall deliberate and take final action on the appeal. Per Section 3.13.080(B) of the UDC, the HARC action is presumed to be valid. The person filing the appeal has the duty to present sufficient evidence and has the burden to justify a reversal of the action being appealed. Per Section 3.13.080(C) of the UDC, all findings and conclusion necessary to the appeal decision by the City Council shall be based on reliable evidence. Competent evidence (evidence admissible in a court of law) will be preferred whenever reasonably available, but in no case may findings be based solely on incompetent evidence unless competent evidence is not reasonably available, the evidence in question appears to be particularly reliable, and the matter at issue is not seriously disputed. The City Council may reverse, affirm, in whole or in part, or modify the HARC decision and make the correct order, requirement, decision or determination, and for that purpose has the same authority as the HARC. Per the requirements of Section 3.13.080(D) of the UDC, a concurring vote of a majority of the City Council members present is required to overturn a HARC decision on a Certificate of Design Compliance.

Our own law requires the Council to presume HARC’s decision to be valid, and to restrict itself to a review of the evidence. In other words, members of the Council cannot simply follow their own whims in this matter, they have to think like HARC and act like HARC. This may be hard for them to do, so we have to show up to keep them focused.

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If you plan to speak, or simply as an aid to understanding the merits of the case, we’d also like to list points of contention that will support HARC’s decision and challenge Merrill’s request.  Please make your own review of the documents, and add to our list with your own points.

Please add to this list by leaving a comment – time is short and there is much that could be said at the appeal. Please add your voice.

NOTE: If you’re viewing this on the homepage, click the headline at the top of this story to go to the full post, then the Comments box will appear.

Or contact us directly: editor@oldtowners.com

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TALKING POINTS

The Logo

The applicant logo is constrained by proportion rather than size, the bull image is designed to be twice the height of the letters. Merrill says this proportion cannot be changed. But having chosen this branding plan, they now find that the letters are too small for their branding. Merrill wants us to amend our design code to suit its design code.

Merrill themselves said at the HARC hearing that even if the New York Stock Exchange would give them a variance (which they declined even to ask for), their advertising impact wouldn’t be large enough without the proposed overlarge signage.

Marketing

So what is Merrill advertising exactly? Their sign lit up at night and through the weekend advertises that they’re closed. From a marketing standpoint this sign gives exactly the wrong impression of our downtown, where restaurants, stores and a theater are using their own signage to announce that they’re open.

Merrill is competing for the attention of passers-by to announce that they’re closed, and to give the impression that our downtown is just a financial district – with nothing going on, closed at 5 p.m., empty of life and entertainment. There’s nothing to see here, says the sign, this is a dead zone – drive on!

The Georgetown brand

This issue revolves not so much around the preservation of history as around advancing the Georgetown marketing plan. If we had wanted to give up and turn the downtown area over to leased office space we could have saved a lot of trouble some decades ago. But the people of Georgetown wanted to preserve and maintain a historic appearance for the original part of town. We have given much in taxpayer money, labor, consultant fees, citizen input, and sheer anguish at times in order to maintain this appearance, and to make it our brand.

The leadership of the city is charged with the mandate to revitalize the downtown business district, and there is a long way to go yet. Merrill Lynch says that it will help to revitalize the area, but beyond some lunch trade during business hours it’s hard to see how.

It’s worth noting that HARC has been very accommodating to two restaurants in this  area, Silver and Stone in the very Tamiro Plaza building, and the Monument Cafe directly across the street. HARC realizes that restaurants need to attract people in order to revitalize downtown.

The value of HARC

HARC in fact takes our brand and our marketing plan seriously, much more so than those who want to destroy it. Getting rid of HARC only creates a kind of lawlessness, a freedom to trash the town, and devalue our decades-long investment. HARC operates under stringent requirements of good judgment, as you can see in Exhibit E. These are the standards that the Council must operate under to review HARC decisions.

The HARC hearing was fairly handled

The minutes of the HARC hearing of Merrill’s application are shown as Exhibit B below. They’re also summarized in the Staff Report, which also carries a letter from a HARC commissioner that is not included in the minutes. It’s worth printing here staff’s summary of the basis for the decision to deny Merrill’s request:

HARC’s basis for denial is articulated in the draft meeting minutes from August 27, 2009 (Exhibit B), and is summarized below:

  1. Concerns were addressed that there would be more tenants in the building coming forward asking for the same type of amendment and adding their own signage to the side of the building.
  2. Some Commissioners indicated the sign itself was appropriate but it did not comply with the intent of the Master Sign Plan.
  3. Placement of the sign just below the 2nd story windows was of concern.
  4. At the meeting, it was determined that the proposed signs will cover and extend over the existing brick sign freeze between the 1st and 2nd story windows. The Design Guidelines discourage the masking of architectural details on Downtown buildings.

Additionally, a HARC member, scheduled to miss the meeting, provided a recommendation letter for the Commission’s consideration. The following is the language provided in that letter:

“Item No. 2: The Design Guidelines allow HARC to consider the building front as part of an overall sign (Chapter 9.1). It also states that ‘a typical strip-commercial development pattern is inappropriate in the Downtown Overlay District’. The complexities of the Tamiro Plaza with its multiple tenants make wall-mounted signs inappropriate. Just imagine the appearance of the Plaza if every tenant placed an illuminated sign on the building! Care and foresight must be taken when developing signage for downtown buildings. Those signage plans must be reviewed with every tenant to ensure complete understanding of what is allowed and what is

restricted. The approved Master Sign Plan and downtown Sign Guidelines must be respected by every tenant and building owner to maintain the visual integrity of the historic area. I would encourage the Commission to deny the CDC for an amendment to the Master Sign Plan for Tamiro Plaza and the CDC for approval of additional exterior signage for the Tamiro Plaza.”

Allegations in Merrill’s Appeal Refuted One by One

More to come…

(Add your analysis to ours in the comments)

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DOCUMENTS AND EXHIBITS

You can download the pdf files directly from the City website here:

http://agendas.georgetown.org/ItemAttachments.aspx?itemid=1289&meetingid=102

Or you can review them online and also download them, below.

501 S. Austin Appeal CC Staff Report

Exhibit a – Original HARC Report & Materials

Exhibit B – 082709 HARC Draft Minutes
Exhibit C – Merrill Lynch Letter of Appeal

Exhibit E – UDC Section 3.13

 

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