A sign atop a 20-foot-tall pole anchoring the corner of Fifth Avenue North and Deaderick Street downtown would look no more attractive than a chicken coop at the same spot. But some say such a sign could be appropriate — and might meld with adjoining gritty downtown buildings and signs — on, for example, Lafayette Street, or along Charlotte Avenue between 11th Avenue and the interstate.
Already, there are signs of that towering type that punctuate — or, critics would say, pockmark — parts of downtown Nashville. Now their future is uncertain. And if city officials radically rethink sign guidelines, as the Metro Council could soon do, prospective businesses might balk at establishing a downtown presence.
“It could inhibit new businesses from coming in,” said Ruble Sanderson, CEO of downtown-based Broadway Entertainment Venues Inc., which owns, among others, The Stage, Legends Corner and Second Fiddle.
Austin-based Code Studio Inc. is crafting a signage guideline to accompany the city’s approximately 15-month-old Metropolitan Zoning Code, called simply the Downtown Code (DTC). If approved, future signs for downtown — bordered by the Cumberland River on the east, Jefferson Street on the north and the inner-interstate loop on the west and south — might not include skinny poles, neon, plastic or any other material or support piece.
That is, in a downtown Nashville that is becoming more cosmopolitan, classier “monument signs” — often masonry and of modest height and mass — could be required over large, auto-centric signs.
Code Studio, which the city is paying $38,000 for its work, is expected to deliver an initial draft of the new sign regulations by June.
“The future character of streets is proposed to be pedestrian-oriented throughout downtown, and pole signs are an auto-oriented sign type,” said Lee Einsweiler, principal of Code Studio. “Nothing about the new sign code will require anyone to take down a pole sign for their existing business. But we are looking for ways to encourage business owners to replace their outmoded pole signs with newer signs.”
Einsweiler said the guidelines would not prohibit neon or plastic signs in general. Pole signs — found in SoBro and The Gulch — won’t be allowed for properties on which buildings are demolished and then redeveloped.
No strict timetable has been established to approve any proposal, and a change would require approval from both the Metro Planning Commission and the Metro Council. Meanwhile, concerned business owners wonder if signage is a problem at all.
“The biggest thing is it seems like a fix for a nonexisting problem, which could become a problem itself,” Sanderson said. “Bureaucrats are bad about trying to fix things that aren’t broken.”
Bobby Joslin, owner of local signmaking company Joslin & Sons Signs, said the Metro Development and Housing Agency, with its various redevelopment districts overlapping much of downtown, and the Metro Historical Commission, which wields some authority in The District, are sometimes in the approval mix (as, occasionally, are NES, AT&T and/or Comcast). In short, the approval process already can be cumbersome.
Joslin said Code Studio is taking an excessively strict approach to crafting the guidelines, compounded by a communication style he contended borders on dismissive.
“Why are we paying an out-of-state consultant to run the sign program?” Joslin asked.
Craig Owensby, Metro Planning Department spokesman, said the department does not have staffers as knowledgeable about signage as Code Studio’s team. In addition, the firm — which has also worked in Knoxville and Memphis — has enlisted law firm Reno & Cavanaugh PLLC and graphic design company Tolleson McCoy, both Nashville-based, to aid the effort.
Owensby disagrees that the views and recommendations of business owners have not been considered.
“I would say the process has been very inclusive,” he said.
But is it necessary?
Richard Thomopoulos, a zoning examiner with Metro’s codes department, said he is not aware of any problems with the city’s existing sign codes.
“I’ve not heard anyone mention anything to me,” said Thomopoulos, who issues the bulk of sign permits for the department. “[The sign code has] worked since 1993, when it was adopted.”
But the Downtown Code has brought a different dynamic to how the city views signage. Adopted in February of 2010 and co-sponsored by Metro Council members Erica Gilmore and Mike Jameson, the Downtown Code shuns a previous approach that based zoning regulations on land-use categories such as residential, commercial and industrial. Instead, the DTC embraces design-oriented standards — in short, it favors form over function.
But skeptics are unsure that much diversity in signage will materialize as downtown grows.
Shelby Smith, a veteran businessman who owns SoBro properties, said Code Studio likes Lower Broadway’s neon signs but he wonders if its guidelines would allow more neon if The District were to expand geographically.
And there are other concerns.
“Some of these [proposed] parameters are subjective,” Smith said. “For instance, there is a mural on the side of Hard Rock Cafe with a Gibson Guitar trademark that stretches the entirety of the building. They point to that as the kind of mural they like. And then they put up a slide of Dandgure’s [a meat-and-three in SoBro] and say it’s objectionable because the name of his business is on it, and it’s bigger than 10 percent of the mural.”
Code Studio’s Einsweiler said 5 percent coverage would perhaps be more acceptable.
Barrett Hobbs, owner of Whiskey Bent Saloon on Lower Broadway, said sign guidelines are needed for the fledgling Downtown Code. But he noted that Metro Codes has basic standards, a key of which is that no sign can cover 15 percent of a building’s exterior surface.
“When we asked, ‘Where are these problems?’ the consultants were able to offer only two or three,” Hobbs said. “I would have taken it as an insult [if I were codes director Terry Cobb] to hear that we don’t have a code, when we do.”
Einsweiler said his company has stressed downtown’s tasteful signs, focusing on the positive.
“One of my personal favorites has to be The Stage sign, with its chasing neon barbed wire,” he said.
Einsweiler said any approved guidelines will allow existing signs to remain, adding he is not opposed to sign types in general but rather, focused on appropriate context.
“Places like the honky-tonk district on Broadway are easy,” he said. “The form is already established in the way the code suggests it should look in the future. However, other corridors, especially the entryways into downtown, are often auto-dominated today. These areas typically call for different types of signs, but the new code describes a pedestrian-oriented future for these sites. Our greatest challenge is what to allow in the interim period until these sites redevelop consistent with the new form-based code.”
Einsweiler said the process remains open and transparent.
“Everyone will get their chance to discuss the draft sign regulations in detail before they are adopted,” he said. “It is never too late to comment, and we welcome any thoughts the public may have.”