HARC Denies Sign Application, Story Not Over Yet

By Ross Hunter

Monday’s HARC hearing regarding the proposed sign for a new restaurant on the Square resulted in a denial of a Certificate of Design Compliance for the applicant. However, this is a complicated matter, and raises an area of unsettled law.

What happens next I don’t know, but I can guess that I’ll be sending out another alert on this matter soon.

Details follow, and be warned it’s a lot to read.

As we claimed in our email alert on Monday, City staff had indeed botched their report to HARC. They represented a V-shaped sign as having the area of only one of its sides, when UDC and Design Guidelines both call for the total of both sides. So the proposed sign was about twice the size allowed by current standards.

HARC had noticed this on Thursday, and set this continuance meeting on Monday to give staff time to check their facts. On Monday staff confirmed their error, and in the meeting REVERSED their original recommendation to approve CDC.

So the applicant and his sign contractor had to do some fast thinking on their feet, as did HARC, to come up with viable ways forward. The meeting was a little incoherent, and what follows is my best summary of the result.

HARC offered the option of closing the sign into a flat one, perpendicular to the building, attached to the canopy, rather than the V-shaped one. The applicant agreed to this modification, and I assume his application will be considered so modified in the minutes of this meeting.

This matters because his original V-shaped sign was out of compliance on its face by a huge factor, it was so obviously wrong that it never should have come to HARC in the first place – this is staff’s incompetence at work, courtesy our tax dollars. But this original sign is not what was denied, it was the subsequently modified sign.

What’s crucial is that this continuance hearing then evolved into a decision on the sign as modified, that is to say, the flattened sign, having the same profile area as one of the two sides of the original V-shape, mounted on top of the awning, perpendicular to the building. Being a flat sign in this way, our codes were now only calling for the area of one side to constitute the area under consideration, instead of both. So for a few peaceful moments it looked like we were going to have happy customers all around.

But this is where last-minute nuance entered the picture, and we have a potential controversy not yet settled in our law, so this issue isn’t over yet.

The original sign was proposed to rest on the (steel) awning and attach directly to it, and this was called a canopy sign. And our codes recognize a sign called a “canopy sign.” And up to this point all of us had been relying on the law for canopy signs. However, all canopy signs existing on the Square currently (The Escape, The Loading Dock) are attached to the front edge of the awning, and run parallel to the building, rather than standing on top of the awning, and running perpendicular to the building frontage.

So HARC had to deal with the question which then arose: Even if the flattened, perpendicular sign is attached to the awning rather than to the structural face of the building, is it a canopy sign, or is it really a “projecting” sign?

This question matters because projecting signs are limited to 15 square foot in profile area, as opposed to the “one square-foot per width of building facade” that has been the rule for the canopy signs we currently see. As HARC realized, this sign sets a precedent for the Square, and we need to get it right. What is the true impact of such a sign?

If, by virtue of standing a few inches away from the building, and by not being attached directly to the building, this new sign can be called a canopy sign, then it presents a visual impact that would not be allowed if it were attached to the building directly. As a canopy sign, for this particular building it would be allowed 26.5 square feet of profile. As a projecting sign, only 15 square feet.

This was a lot to consider on the fly, and I commend HARC for absorbing these implications in a short time. It took me until the next morning to roll all this around in my mind, and another day to be able to write it here. I still don’t know the citation for the 15-square-foot limit, I’ll add it to the website as we prepare for the next round of this issue.

I will also say that I sympathize with the applicant for getting frustrated with this whole process. First staff told him he had a slam dunk, then he saw them reverse that opinion. Then he saw a compromise offered, then he saw it taken away. HARC was struggling to find ways to give him a set of choices as they grappled with a landmark issue but he pressed for a conclusive ruling, and HRC denied his application by a vote of 5 to 1.

To be clear – despite my uncertainty about procedure with modifying an application on the fly – HARC was definitely ruling against the sign as modified. Which is to say, a flattened sign, essentially identical on both sides, having what I’m calling a “profile” area of approximately 26.5 square feet, and mounted at its base directly to the steel awning and not to the building face, and standing perpendicular to the building face. This is what 5 out of 6 HARC members decided was inappropriate for the Square.

And the logic for the denial was (1) the closer resemblance to a projecting sign than to a canopy sign, (2) the lack of definition in existing codes to cover this “hybrid” contingency and (3) the existing constraint on all projecting signs to be no more than 15 square feet in profile area.

So what happens next is something I’m sure we’ll learn soon 😉


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