Our Pledge To You

City Hall

‘No-brainer’ to legalize sidewalk signs: alderman

Sandwich boards along Damen Avenue in the 32nd Ward | Adam Thorp/Sun-Times

An ordinance introduced in the City Council on Thursday would give businesses that advertise with ubiquitous sandwich-board signs on sidewalks a chance to get right with the law.

Ald. Scott Waguespack (32nd) introduced the measure that would reverse a frequently ignored 1994 city ordinance that banned the signs in front of businesses for creating “visual clutter” and “obstructing pedestrian traffic.” Violators are supposed to be fined up to $500.

Waguespack’s main concern when drawing up the ordinance had been safe passage for the disabled, he said. Otherwise, “it was sort of a no-brainer,” he said.

The Small Business Advocacy Council (SBAC) and other business groups raised the issue with Waguespack after fielding complaints from their membership about inconsistent enforcement of the ordinance, especially after a crackdown in 2011.

“This incident created a lot of unease in the brick and mortar community and pushed the issue onto our radar screen,” SBAC spokeswoman Kimberly Brisky said in an email. “Small business owners want to be in compliance with the code. They just need clarity from the city in order to comply and then can focus on growing and running their businesses.”

Since the start of last year, 35 tickets have been issued to businesses for placing signs in the public way, racking up $135,887 in fines, according to the city Department of Business Affairs and Consumer Protection.

Under the new ordinance, applicants would pay $250 for a two-year permit and submit information about the sign’s design and placement to the BACP.

A stretch of boutique clothing stores and trendy eateries at the southern end of Waguespack’s North Side ward displayed many as-of-now non-compliant signs Friday afternoon.

A sign outside Mindy’s Hot Chocolate, a restaurant in Bucktown. “We’re all obsessed with it, we change it every day,” said general manager Brooke Bartlett | Adam Thorp/Sun-Times

Business owners and employees at 10 stores advertising on sandwich boards on Damen Avenue mostly said they were unaware of the ordinance. One owner who asked not to be identified said she knew it existed, but chose to risk the fine.

Owners say the signs help draw pedestrian traffic, especially for temporary promotions that don’t warrant a permanent change to their facade.

Traffic would ebb in the summer months at Mindy’s Hot Chocolate, a restaurant at 1747 N. Damen, if they were not able to tell passersby that they also sold iced hot chocolate, general manager Brooke Bartlett said.