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Zoning Committee moves to tone down small digital signs

The City Council’s Zoning Committee moved Tuesday to tone down small digital signs that, aldermen contend, have destroyed the quality of life in Chicago neighborhoods, amid concern that the restrictions don’t go far enough.

The ordinance, passed on a voice vote, was crafted jointly by aldermen and top mayoral aides during a nine-month sign moratorium imposed last year.

It would limit the brightness of newly-erected digital signs, prohibit motion and require them 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 ten 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.

The ordinance applies only to small digital signs where the permit was “applied for on or after April 2.” All existing signs would be grandfathered in.

The full Council is expected to approve the ordinance on Wednesday.

Buildings Commissioner Felicia Davis argued that City Hall struck the appropriate “balance” between neighborhood residents concerned about preserving their quality of life and sign companies accused of doing an end-run around the City Council that don’t want any regulation.

Downtown Ald. Brendan Reilly (42nd) is 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 foot-by-8 foot 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.

Ald. Bob Fioretti (2nd) complained about the ten-second dwell time. He argued that 20 or 30 seconds would be more appropriate 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 be. 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 sq.ft. 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.

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.

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 impact the 34 massive electronic billboards going up on land adjacent to Chicago area expressways. It was confined to signs 100 sq. ft. or less.