Sometimes there needs to be a timeout.
There comes a moment when someone must step up, make the “T” sign with both hands and ask for a pause to regroup.
It may well have reached that moment with the Uptown Columbus Facade Board. It is an entity of the city of Columbus with the stated purpose “to adopt and apply standards governing the development, redevelopment, rehabilitation, preservation and maintenance that affects facades of the properties within their jurisdiction.”
This nine-member board has great power and discretion when it comes to downtown signage, the first impression you get of most businesses. The board can dictate how big a sign for a downtown business should be and where it should go. It can allow variances to its guidelines.
For example, one business may get the OK for a back-lit sign, while another doesn’t. The board is charged with making those decisions with guidance from the city and those doing its bidding.
The board can determine which buildings are demolished when the owners make such requests. When Columbus State University asked to tear down the old Ledger-Enquirer tower at the corner of 12th Street and Broadway, it was this board that had the final say.
The board is comprised of citizens who volunteer their time — good people doing the thankless task of policing their neighbors.
I wouldn’t want the job.
But the city needs to give them a little help right now. And if you need to know why, refer to last Monday’s monthly meeting.
It lasted two frustrating hours.
The board seemed confused and frustrated by the guidelines it enforces. The applicants were definitely frustrated and confused and they expressed that in their own way. The two staff, one a city employee and the other a volunteer from the Historic Columbus Foundation, appeared frustrated as five cases came before the board.
When everybody in the room is frustrated — and/or confused — there is a problem.
And you can’t point the finger at any one person or thing as the cause of that problem. But somebody needs to figure it out, and a brief timeout might be the best way to do it.
From the board table on Monday, one board member made the following statement when discussing taking out a window and replacing it with a sliding window from which a vendor could hand frozen treats: “I personally don’t like the materials on this building.”
These decisions should not be based on personal preference, but on clear guidelines that allow common-sense variation when needed.
You start making decisions on personal preference and make that known from a board table, and the city will be defending a lawsuit when that is said to the wrong applicant.
The Uptown Facade Board, established in 1987, operates under guidelines that were written in 2000. Remember what downtown was like in 1987? Me, too.
What about 2000? Better, but not what it is today. What we have now is a vastly different and better place.
Which brings us to the role of the Uptown Facade Board.
When a small business owner is asking to put two signs on a storefront and he is told the guidelines only allow for one primary sign, he is obviously going to look at other businesses that have multiple signage and ask a simple question: “Why?”
Forget that the answer could be that business — take the Cannon Brew Pub with at least six logos on the building the current Facade Board considers a sign — is grandfathered in.
Or when a business is told that lettering on the sign on its awning can only be 12 inches tall and take up no more more than 40 percent of the awning, the owners are going to look at the large “Freeze Frame: Yogurt Shop” sign on its awning and ask, “Why?” The simple answer is it was done before the 12-inch rule, and some on the board contend that was the reason the rule was adopted after the yogurt shop opened.
Or when a business is told it can’t have a sign that sticks out from the building but the owners see one on Iron Bank Coffee, they are going to ask, “Why?” Never mind that the answer is grounded in common sense and the variance was approved so that the beautiful facade of the old Iron Bank would not be compromised by a sign covering up its unique architecture.
Everywhere you look downtown, there are inconsistencies in the signs and what is allowed and isn’t. And, in many cases, there are good reasons for those inconsistencies.
If the problem is bad now, it is about to get worse. All you have to do is look at the 1200 block of Broadway to see the next battleground. The lines are already being drawn.
Two new hotels, a Hampton Inn and an AC Hotel, are planned for that block. Just a guess, but I suspect both of those innkeepers will ask for variances to the Uptown Facade Board guidelines when it comes time to put the signs on the buildings.
For business purposes, they will likely want more than the guidelines will allow.
Anyone want to take the bet they won’t petition the board for a variance?
I didn’t think so.
When you add more than 200 hotel rooms in half a city block, signage for the inns, restaurants and parking are going to be critical. The current guidelines were not written with side-by-side competing new hotels in mind.
In 2000 when those rules were put in play, downtown Columbus was wrestling with a different issue. Bars were king and the rules kept this from becoming a cheap Bourbon Street. That is not the issue any more. You have retail and high-end restaurants moving in, and they want appropriate signs to advertise their businesses and capitalize on their investments.
Back in 2000, no one could have seen the problems business and property owners face today when erecting signs. And that is a good thing. Actually, it’s a great thing. It is a sign — get it? — of great progress.
These are problems — and I use that term loosely — that a lot of communities would love to have.
But, still, it is a problem.
You want an example of how the process is flawed? Try this one on for size:
A downtown shop owner wants to let potential customers know when they are open. The guidelines allow for that shop owner to have a lighted “Open” sign in the front of the business. You can get one for $28.99 on the internet or a few bucks more at a store. The sign can’t flash or be flashy, but it can inform folks you are open.
That’s the point, right?
Before you can hang that perfectly acceptable sign inside a front window, you have to go to the Government Center annex, apply with the Uptown Face Board and pay a $150 application fee.
Someone, anyone, please tell my why or how this makes sense. The city’s guidelines permit the sign, and it can be brought inexpensively, but then you have to pay the city $150 application fee before you can hang it.
Last year, the city began charging Uptown Facade Board applicants $150 for a normal application and $1,000 for a demolition application.
Before that, there was no charge.
People are paying now and they should be able to expect consistency and fairness. Right now, there is little consistency because the guidelines need updating.
Someone please call a timeout and regroup. If not, this is only going to get worse.