Once upon a time, there was a neon sign that spelled “OPEN.”
It sat on the shelf at Home Depot in Goleta, knowing it was not only unwanted, but actually considered illegal in the city of Santa Barbara. You see, Santa Barbara has had a sign ordinance since 1922, while permutations of the Architectural Board of Review, Historic Landmarks Commission and members at large have overseen the review of all permanent and temporary signs since 1977.
In fact, you may be hard-pressed to recall a sign that particularly stands out in Santa Barbara. But that’s a good thing, actually, because the point is to maintain the simplicity, art and creativity of signage within certain restrictions on style, material, color and size.
You won’t –or shouldn’t– see huge banners (unless it’s on the State owned Earl Warren Showground fencing or belongs to one of those union idiots loitering on a corner downtown with their “Shame on Somebody” banners) or inflatable gorillas, or huge flags. There are some offenders, such as BevMo’s “5 cent sale,” or those occasional car dealers and empty lot pumpkin patches, who know they can get away with it over a holiday weekend.
You also won’t see illuminated billboards that blind you at night, or the side of a building being used as one, or any glaring and distracting signage that is outside of the standards for illumination and taste.
Or at least you shouldn’t. But when our City Council won’t listen to the direction of its own advisory committee members and votes to allow audible, visual advertising blaring at you from gas station pumps, you know they’ve stopped caring about standards in place for ninety years. (Councilwoman Murillo was the lone dissent.)
The legal challenges to our sign ordinance restrictions on color, size and illumination have been brought by large corporations, claiming that their “trademarked” looks cannot be changed. Hence, most gasoline stations for instance, stand out like NASA night launch pads.
Signs are supposed to be helpful, adding to the character of the business front, not gaudy, trashy screaming advertising. And until recently, we assumed that most potential customers were bright enough to surmise whether a company was actually “open” for business by either looking inside, or noticing people going in and out.
Like the algae bloom in our summer ponds, the proliferation of neon window signs is lowering the “eye appeal” of our city by the day, leading me to believe that not only was that OPEN sign at Home Depot sold recently, but there’s likely fifty more on back order.
In a block and a half stroll on lower State Street from Gutierrez to Haley this past Sunday; I noticed the Little Rainbow Foot Spa’s “foot reflexology” neon sign first. This location is a good example to start with, because it first opened as an Asian nail salon with different owners.
Apparently, business wasn’t very good, so they added the first illegal, though highly visible, moving, flashing neon “open” sign.
When that apparently didn’t drive the hordes of fingers and toes through their doors, they added a second moving, flashing, neon sign, also saying “open” just in case the potential customer missed the one in the other window, four feet away. When that didn’t succeed, they decided to not only be illegal, but creative, adding “manicures and pedicures” to the visual cacophony, as if the giant recliner chairs inside, with basins at the foot, might be mistaken for a clothing store.
The business closed. I doubt it was because no one knew they were open.
Continuing on our walk, there’s a novel “piercing” sign at the Golden Eagle Tattoo parlor, though it is attached to a wall inside, with the required distance from the front. Then we have a double flashing “open” sign at the India House- along with banners with oversized letters. Will someone please tell the owners that obnoxious signage doesn’t improve the food, which is why most people go to a restaurant. Oops, and you’d better include the All India restaurant across the street. Cold Stone has it’s neon “open,” illuminated, along with Galanga Thai and Wahoo’s. Retroville next door is out of business, along with its retro tube neon “open” sign gathering dust in the window.
Half a block up Haley, just off of State Street, the Greek House Cafe creatively attached an illegal, construction orange and black, “YES, We’re Open” sign below their permitted hanging one. Need I remind folks in the restaurant business that it’s about location, location, location?
A simple matter of enforcement would take care of most of these offenders, but unfortunately, our City Staff has been cut severely. Even though ordinance enforcement can improve the looks of the town and bring dollars to our coffers through abatement fees, we don’t have the people to cite them or follow up on complaints. Besides, enforcement is typically a low level job, and if you are going to fund the management staff in the planning department, there will be little left with which to hire those entry level positions.
When it comes to signage, I am sensitive that some business owners come from cities and cultures where they’ve never heard of a sign ordinance, and where “more” is always “better.” Cardboard and neon signs advertising check cashing, cheap cigarettes or beer cover windows and walls, especially in poor neighborhoods, targeting those who can least afford it.
But not in Santa Barbara, and certainly not in El Pueblo Viejo. It is up to the city to educate and encourage new businesses to adopt our ordinances in order to give everyone a level playing field, and to entice them to raise their standards, not lower ours.
While State Street should be our crown jewel, instead it is turning into a trash dump looking seedier by the day. Truth is, having an “open” neon sign won’t help your business, or make a very positive statement about its contents. But the other truth is, if you want to get one at Home Depot and glamorize your window with its useless message, be my guest; neither the city nor the Council is going to do anything about it.