Weekly Column by Loretta Redd
Unless you’ve had a business in Santa Barbara, you’ve probably never heard of the Sign Committee. For those who have appeared before it, or simply been required to submit plans, pay fees and jump through the hoops of approval, I would imagine it felt like one more bureaucratic bailiwick before being blessed with final project approval.
My first foray into volunteering for the City on a Commission or Committee was Signs. I didn’t have an architectural background, nor did I manufacture or install signs. Having moved from San Francisco and Walnut Creek, it didn’t take me long to realize how significant it was that there were no billboards, no glaring neon lights from every business window, no sandwich boards on the sidewalks, or balloons, or pole signs (OK, there are actually 3 which were ‘grandfathered’ in) no temporary “Going out of Business” banners on every wall …except for our rug stores, of course. And I soon noticed that the illumination throughout the city was soft enough to actually still see stars.
Becoming a member of this group required me to learn a lot about the history of Santa Barbara, its architecture, the origin of signage as a craft, our El Pueblo Viejo Landmark district, special Brinkerhoff and Downtown requirements. I was told about the few exceptions which had been made to our strict standards…most of which could still bring a tear to the eye of long-serving Sign Committee members.
I was taught about the materials with which signs could and should be made, paint application styles to buildings, walls or boards, the significance of brackets and proper hanging levels, proportionate size, lumens of lighting, etc. It was a lot more complicated than, “Gee, that’s pretty…let’s say yes!” And although some of the denials left the applicants reeling, the end result was usually appreciated by all.
That was also before Corporate America began taking State Street hostage, as its “national brands and trademarks” began whittling away at our City standards. Years ago, we won a jousting match with McDonalds, resulting in the only bronze, rather than painted “Golden Arches” at the State Street location. Today, BIG wins.
Want to see a great sign? Go by the new Casa Blanca restaurant on lower State Street…or even Dr. Huerta’s dental practice in the shape of a tooth! Signs that look like bicycles, eyeglasses, signs with brackets that are artwork in themselves.
Then go look at what Marshall’s has done by attaching cheap, wall mounted, plywood looking white slabs with blue paint on one of the most prominent buildings in Santa Barbara. Somebody PLEASE tell me they are temporary.
The city is experiencing the ‘creep’ factor of slipping standards, from the bright, multicolor ‘OPEN’ signs popping up in every business window, to the TV screen chitty-chat advertising at every new gas pump, the unending neon glare from Asian pedicure/manicure strip mall salons, to the new ATM of Chase Bank near Gelson’s (pictured left), bright enough to be a Vandenberg launch pad.
The economy and our City finances are responsible in part for the slide toward this butt-ugly signage. As budget cuts are made, the Sign Committee meets less often, parts were folded into the ABR, and the enforcement officer overseeing compliance was, for all practical purposes, lost. Some Council members have neither appreciated the importance of signage restrictions, nor would risk making things more ‘difficult’ for business. But those very restrictions and design specifications are one the main reasons why Santa Barbara looks and feels superior to many other California towns.
Want average? Settle for the argument that folks can’t do business in Santa Barbara because it’s too difficult.
Want better? Volunteer for a Committee or Commission next time there’s an opening. While we play watchdog over large scale developments and Coastal challenges, let’s not take our eye off the little things that make our town so terrific.