Signs along the Chicago River won’t be the only ones getting smaller and more subtle, if downtown Ald. Brendan Reilly (42nd) has his way.
Reilly also wants to raise the aesthetic bar for the special sign district already established along Michigan Avenue from Oak Street to Roosevelt Road.
At last week’s City Council meeting, Reilly introduced an ordinance that would require illuminated Plexiglas box signs to be replaced over time with more attractive, less obtrusive halo signs where light flashes behind individual letters.
If the City Council approves the regulations, they would apply to new retail space and older stores that change hands or re-model.
The visual impact would not be immediate. But over time, the regulations have the potential to dramatically upgrade the look and feel of the Magnificent Mile, Chicago’s showcase shopping boulevard.
“As these older signs transition out and, when the spaces are re-tenanted, we’ll see far less visual clutter than the letter box signs create. It’s raising the design standards for the Michigan Avenue streetwall,” Reilly said Wednesday.
“This ordinance will cull the herd of 20- and 30-year-old, cheaper-looking, illuminated Plexiglas box signs. After four or five tough winters, the Plexiglas is often clouded, cracked or broken entirely. They’re tough to maintain. It drags down the aesthetics of the entire corridor. The newer signs are more subtle. They get the visual the business owner needs, but remove the heavier, clunkier boxes. These new standards complement the architecture of Michigan Avenue.”
Reilly stressed that the ordinance “won’t require people to start taking off old signs” immediately. It simply applies “moving forward.” But, the impact south of the Chicago River could be dramatic, he said.
“I’m less focused on north of the river than I am about addressing a lot of clutter south of the river. There’s going to be a lot of new construction— at 360, 333, 152 and 200 North Michigan. As they’re tenanting retail spaces, this will bring a higher design standard for signage,” he said.
“Look at all of the development from the river to Randolph and all of the new tenants that will be moving into existing spaces as this becomes an economically more vibrant corridor. These four blocks don’t look like the rest of Michigan Avenue north of the river. I’m looking at all this new development as an opportunity for us to finally get these blocks right.”
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In 1996, Reilly’s colorful predecessor, Ald. Burton Natarus (42nd), pushed through sign restrictions for Michigan Avenue after more than a year of delicate negotiations with retailers and community groups.
Natarus said the reaction to signs and displays along the 800 block of North Michigan motivated the crackdown. At the time, the block was occupied by Filene’s Basement, Victoria’s Secret and Border’s Books and Music.
“It’s too jazzy . . . It’s too flashy. Filene’s has brown shades. Victoria’s Secret has a lot of pink in it and lady’s lingerie displayed in a rather exquisite manner. Border’s has a large number of signs on the face of the building and the overall appearance was detracting — not only from the business community, but from the residential community,” Natarus said then.
At the time, a spokesperson for Victoria’s Secret argued that there was “a fine line between being tasteful and tasteless when you’re dealing with lingerie” and that the retailer was determined to “protect our luxurious image.”
Four years later, Natarus introduced a similar ordinance for the State Street-Wabash Avenue commercial corridor.