More digital signs to be allowed, but smaller, less bright

Written By Fran Spielman Posted: 04/30/2014, 06:01pm

Last year, Chicago aldermen slapped a nine-month moratorium on small digital signs put up by sign companies accused of doing an end run around the City Council in the hunt for advertising dollars.

Now the moratorium will be lifted, paving the way for even more of those small digital signs. But they’ll be smaller, less bright and not as close to surrounding homes.

The City Council agreed Wednesday to rein in small digital signs that, aldermen claim, have destroyed the quality of life in Chicago neighborhoods.

The ordinance was approved 46-2. Aldermen Bob Fioretti (2nd) and Brendan Reilly (42nd) voted no.

The ordinance was jointly crafted by aldermen and top mayoral aides during the moratorium.

It would limit the brightness of newly erected digital signs, prohibit motion and require the signs to be turned off between midnight and 5 a.m. unless it’s an “on-premise sign where the business is open.”

Each image “must have a dwell time of no less than 10 seconds” to minimize distraction to passing motorists. No digital sign that’s “off-premise” of a business could be located closer than 125 feet to a residential district.

New signs in neighborhood retail strips that could be 100 square feet under the old rules would be limited to 32 square feet. In large retail districts, the limit would drop from 200 square feet to just 64.

The ordinance applies only to small digital signs where the permits was applied for on or after April 2. All existing signs would be grandfathered in and could remain.

At a Zoning Committee hearing earlier this week, Buildings Commissioner Felicia Davis argued that the ordinance struck the appropriate “balance” between neighborhood residents and their local aldermen concerned about preserving their quality of life and sign companies accused of doing an end run around the City Council.

Downtown Ald. Reilly was not so sure.

On streets lined with ground-floor businesses with residential high-rises above, Reilly warned of “the potential for folks to be getting suntans through their windows.”

“If we have some of these nightmare scenarios play out where you have a [downtown mixed-used] district where literally every shop owner puts up an 8-by-8 dynamic display sign, what protection can I offer to the many hundreds of residents who live above that condition and may see their quality of life diminished?” Reilly said then.

Fioretti complained about the 10-second dwell time. He argued that 20 or 30 seconds would be more likely to avoid driver distraction.

Deputy Corporation Counsel Rose Kelly countered, “This will help the quality of life immensely. It brings down the brightness of signs. It brings down how big they can big. It regulates the hours they can operate. This is a huge step forward.”

Davis added, “We want a thriving downtown. We also want thriving businesses in communities. And part of that is, they have to advertise what it is they are actually selling. So we have to balance all of those interests. It may not get us 100 percent there. But if we’re 80 percent there, we’re further than we were before and we can always re-evaluate where we need to go next.”

Last year, the City Council’s Transportation Committee blocked efforts by Digital GreenSigns to put up 100-square-foot digital signs in three wards whose local aldermen object.

A few days later, Emanuel sided with the City Council.

“Aldermen are upset because residents are upset. They don’t want this type of image in their community,” the mayor said then. “I’ve been clear that our neighborhoods should have a different standard. I want to be clear about that standard and the direction we’re gonna have.”

Emanuel said aldermen had a “role to play in what happens in their community” and sign companies should not be allowed to go around them in an aggressive push for digital advertising dollars.

“There’s got to be a proper structure — not only about how we go forward, but also a big concern I have [is] we have an extensive amount of signs that are up in the city that are up there illegally. And we need to do a better job of enforcement,” Emanuel said.

The City Council then slapped a nine-month moratorium on small digital signs to give City Hall time to draft new regulations that give local aldermen more control.

The moratorium did not affect the 34 massive electronic billboards going up on land adjacent to Chicago area expressways. It was confined to signs 100 square feet or less.

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