Riverfront signs reined in, but Donald Trump gets last laugh

Mayor Rahm Emanuel on Thursday played his trump card to prevent Chicago’s “second lakefront” from turning into a cheesy Midwest version of the Las Vegas strip, but developer Donald Trump got the last laugh in the clash of giant egos.

At Emanuel’s behest, the City Council’s Zoning Committee agreed to turn the Chicago Riverfront into a “sign district”—with sharp limits on the size, placement and make-up of future signs.

But that also means that the 2,891-square-foot sign that Trump used to brand his 96-story Trump International Hotel & Tower will have far less competition for the eye to see.

To say that that makes the brash New York City developer of “The Apprentice” fame happy would be an understatement.

“This legislation is not something I’m exactly opposed to,” Trump told the Chicago Sun-Times after the ordinance was introduced.

So Emanuel’s crackdown indirectly helps to promote the Trump brand?

“I guess you could say that,” he said.

Trump said he applied for the sign that bears his name under the old law and got the necessary permits after getting “everything perfect.” Former Mayor Richard M. Daley approved it at 3,600 sqare feet. Emanuel cut it to 2,891 square feet before authorizing it himself.

“It’s the Hollywood sign of Chicago. People love it. People are taking pictures out there by the hundreds every day,” Trump said.

“If they want to change the law from this day forward, that’s up to the mayor. But you can’t go back.”

The ordinance approved Thursday would turn the Chicago Riverfront — from Kinzie Street all the way south to Roosevelt Road — into a sign district similar to one that shields Michigan Avenue from visual clutter.

No sign could be larger than 550 square feet, and signs on the shortest buildings could be limited to 250 square feet. Rooftop signs and painted wall signs would be strictly prohibited. So would neon signs, flashing signs, “dynamic image display” signs and banners.

Each building would be limited to one sign, instead of two. And signs could be put up on riverfront high-rises, only to promote a “principal tenant” that occupies “51 percent or more of the floor space.”

All signs would have to be affixed on building walls parallel to the property line. None could project more than 12 inches from the building’s façade.

On riverfront buildings that are not high-rises, “no sign shall be located more than two stories above grade on any building side that is adjacent to the Chicago River.”

Prior to Thursday’s vote, Zoning Administrator Patty Scudiero talked about the mayor’s plan to transform Chicago’s “second lakefront” into a “world-class recreational area lined with cafes and restaurants” that would someday rival Millennium Park.

She noted that sign districts are “not unique” in Chicago and already protect Oak Street, State Street, Wabash and Michigan Avenues.

She further pointed out that businesses on the first two floors of riverfront buildings— like the popular Chicago Cut restaurant and Dick’s Last Resort — would still be allowed to put up signs.

“We don’t want to detract from business located in that area, but we want to promote the river” and protect it from visual clutter, Scudiero said.

Five months ago, Emanuel belatedly jumped into the fray after a public campaign against the Trump sign spearheaded by the Chicago Tribune’s Pulitzer Prize-winning architecture critic Blair Kamin.

The mayor denounced the sign as “architecturally tasteless” and asked his staff to explore the city’s legal options to change it — even as he acknowledged that it complies with the planned development ordinance. Days later, the mayor acknowledged there was nothing he could do to change the Trump sign and set his sights on preventing future visual clutter.

Trump made the rounds of morning network talk shows to defend the sign and ridicule Emanuel’s pre-occupation with trivia.

“Chicago has other problems they should be worried about, not a sign,” he declared.

Asked then whether he feels he’s being picked on, Trump said: “Of course, but that’s the story of my life. It’s a badge of courage.”

Pressed to explain why, he said, “Because they love me.”

Downtown Ald. Brendan Reilly (42nd) worked closely with the mayor’s office to craft the riverfront sign ordinance that will inadvertently help Trump, instead of hurt him.

“We’re in the middle of an exciting $100 million riverwalk redevelopment project. This is going to be the city’s next big tourism draw. It’s home to all of our important architectural tours. Reducing visual clutter along the river is important. Given the city’s significant investment, we want to set a higher design aesthetic standard along that corridor,” Reilly said when the ordinance was introduced.

Reilly has argued that he had no choice but to “pinch my nose and approve” a Trump sign the alderman called “distasteful” because it complied with the zoning code.

If it was denied, Trump would likely have sued the city and won, the alderman said.

“There are a lot of very large signs that buildings negotiated through the planned development process. Historically, building owners were given significant signage entitlements. This requires a stricter standard. This business of planned developments being negotiated including tremendous square footage signs — those days are over,” he said.