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Not Open for Business: Signs of the Times

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.

Now, signage may seem like a very unimportant thing.

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.

13 Responses to “Not Open for Business: Signs of the Times”

  1. How about starting with the vagrancy laws and removing the bums loitering all over State Street… and then the signs as well. Desperate shop owners are losing the battle and the war thanks to an agenda of good feelings that unfortunately doesn’t include the small business persons.

    • Anonymous

      Bob hit the nail on the head. Desperate business owners everywhere now

      • Anonymous

        To some extent yes but most of these are national chains who don’t give a damn about SB or its codes. Starbucks. Fresh and Easy. Bevmo.

  2. We need enforcement officers

    Thank you for monitoring this recent proliferation of illegal signage. The recent huge Bevmo! monstrosities were some of the worst and no surprise from this company who loves getting into the face of local sensibilities.

    Best way to enforce resistance to this aggressive law breaking is to simply boycott all of the offending businesses.

    Second best way is to send a message to city council to fund enforcement officials to carry out the stated will of the people as to community standards as expressed in our city ordinances. Stop wasting time “doing things” down at city hall passing new regulations and ordinances if there is no funding to support enforcement of these very regulations.

    Half the people in transportation and environmental services need to be re-deployed to where their work would actually benefit city residents. They need to become city ordinance enforcement staff and the entire city ordinance enforcement procedures need a 100% overhaul to be swift and sure. This is a huge city deficiency and thank you for showcasing it.

    But it goes well beyond just identifying the problems which are proliferating in alarming numbers. But we need to look at why this is happening and that goes right to the heart of the highly inefficient city staffing priorities and deployment we now have.

    You can write all the laws you want but if there is no means to enforce them, then time, money and goodwill have been wasted and thrown away resulting in nothing but a hollow window dressing to crow about at campaign time, while the original problem lies unabaited. Stop this.

  3. 2013: need new city council majority

    In the next campaign for city council in 2013, there needs to be a new city council majority who will do all of the following:

    1. Audit of all city blight ordinances
    2. Audit of present city blight ordinance violations
    3. Audit of effectiveness of existing blight ordinance enforcements
    4. Evaluation of best practices for city blight enforcement procedures
    5. Restructuring city blight enforcement procedures
    6. Redeploy at least one person from every city department to be cross-trained in city blight enforcement.
    7. Clean up this growing mess that past and present city councils have ignored and underfunded for too long.
    8. Develop a consistent, effective and comprehensive city blight ordinance
    9. Educate all present city residents and especially all new city residents what city blight ordinances allow and disallow and what the penalties will be for violation.
    10. Incentivize, educate and enforce new, streamlined and effective city blight policies.

    • Anonymous

      What did they do with all that RDA money that was supposed to deal with blight? Oh, right, they built more subsidized housing than this community could handle and opened the door to an ever-more dependent population, and surprise, more blight. Back to the sign issue, there was actually a fawning report recently on KEYT of a sign-spinner doing his acrobatic tricks–and how about the guy advertising pot evaluations with his big sign in front of the downtown Montecito Bank.

  4. Rest not

    Shows passing ordinance is no substitute for a concerned electorate who commit to common community values.

  5. Rest not

    Blight is a community wide concern, and not limited to the former RDA zone downtown.

    The community needs to weigh in on our community blight standards and then re-commit to carrying them out. We can’t delegate this to an ineffectual ordinance, or to a committee set up to do this work for us.

    We need to make this an election issue and elect those who will carry out the will of the electorate who send this message with the majority of of our votes.

  6. ViewingSB

    I have to ask where in any city ordinance does it say those signs are illegal or even prohibited. Does that not actually depend on placement? Also just curious are you referring to LED signs at the Home Depot?

    • Stop signs

      There is a whole city sign ordinance committee who monitors all these details – look for a link on the city website.

      • Viewing sb

        Yeah I already looked actually saw a November 2011 minutes where these signs were discussed and they did not read as “illegal” which is why I asked.

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