Tempe may finally be getting smart and traveler-friendly on signage

Tempe may finally be getting smart and traveler-friendly on signage

 By Lawn Griffiths

Over my 27 years of living in Tempe, I had paid special attention to the city’s signage standards and practices. In my column-writing days, I leveled a flurry of criticisms about over-regulation. The city’s stingy, begrudging rules hurt businesses, organizations and the traveling public. In the past several years, I have been pleased to see some sanity restored.   We are now seeing larger, more creative, more informative signs on the streets and sides of building.  We have seen the city abandon it legalistic, zealously enforced rules on banners and promotional signs. City leaders always would tell me, “Well, we don’t want to look like Mesa with its hand-painted commercial signs standing 15 feet in the air.”

Of course, the city had long been hypocritical in its rules-setting, variances and allowances for certain businesses. I recall how tight the city was in the 1990s and then dropped all rules when Sun Devil Stadium hosted the 1996 NFL Super Bowl game.  Banners, signage and massive promotional boards were everywhere.   But worse than that was when Tempe Marketplace was developed, and the OK was given to mega-lighted signs for the tenants of the mall along the Red Mountain Freeway and Highway 101.  That row of huge signs can be seen for four miles for night drivers southbound on the 101.  Now I don’t mind having such eye-grapping signage. I just see a double-standard and uneven enforcement.

My gripe with the city centered on its unimaginative, restrictive ordinance, intended for aesthetics, but what led to postage-stamp signs, hard to see from the street and so limited in information that is didn’t serve merchants.  Strip malls could merely say “Shoes” or  “Electronics” or “Barber.”  There was the old rule that stores could not have more than 24 square feet of sign space, which automatically limited the kinds of crucial information left off, include street numbers.  Height restrictions have meant the signs are at the level of cars. That means challenges of passing a business and finding cars, trucks and buses block them out.  Strip mall often have not had corner directory boards listing all the tenants at that corner. (How many of us have driven through strip malls at all four corners of a major intersection to finally find a merchant?)

Not so long ago the city cracked down on non-profit groups for their banners and event signs, accompanied by fees. I recall the time the city enforcers taped a violation notice on the door of my church because we had staked up a banner for our Easter services.   Seems we should have paid more than $100 for a permit that would give us up to 14 days in the calendar year to put out banners.  Pretty stingy for a church wanting to tout a number of events.   The city revisions in 2009 and 2010 are more realistic, and the petty enforcements of most banners appear to be gone.

Interestingly, the city adopted Zoning Ordinance 193 in 1948 to “prohibit intermittent or flashing forms of illumination.”  In 1951, Ordinance 268 restricted placement of billboards to certain industrial or zoning districts to eliminate the popular “Burma Shave” kind of signs. The Design Review Board, one of the first in the nation, was created by an ordinance in 1969, giving a citizen board authority to deal with many issues including on-site signage.  By 1976, the city council addressed sign packages and low-profile free-standing signs. B-O-R-I-N-G!   The push was for uniformity of signs for all tenants in a shopping centers and then in industrial sites.  Stores were limited to one sign per street frontage.  In 1987, more restrictions were set on sign maintenance, non-conforming signs and banners.  Alteration of a sign previously “grandfathered” meant the whole sign had to go.

City objectives for signs, set in 2005, were to “prevent the chaotic proliferation of signage,” “avoid the visual clutter created by excessive signage,” “promote building-mounted signage” to works with the architecture (but not compatible with trees); and provide the name, identify, product, services and special circumstances.

I love to see businesses that get around sign rules by parking a truck along the street that serves as a de facto sign itself.

I used to rail against the puny letters of signs put on the face of taller Tempe buildings. The late-Councilman Frank Plenchner once grabbed me by the collar in fury over a column I did reprimanding the city for approval of oh-so-small letters on a Centerpoint bank building. I pointed to it and said that was exactly why the sign ordinance was ridiculous.

Beyond that, anyone in Tempe who really wants to promote a place or event needs a lesson in lettering.  Shame on businesses that let the city regulate them down to paltry lettering and signs. Shame on folks who do not make yard and patio sale signs that have letters big enough to read for a driver doing 40 mph.  Shame on them for their miserably, unimaginative and informative signs.

Treat signs as communication for our navigation.  A community that enables its businesses and citizens to carry out smart commerce should be lauded.  Tempe seems finally headed in the right direction.