A Matter of Perspective

Does a proposed historic-sign ordinance go too far?

Could next week's Tucson City Council public hearing on historic signs help Speedway Boulevard become the "ugliest street in America" once again?

In January 1962, Mayor Lew Davis gave Speedway its notorious moniker. Then on July 24, 1970, Life magazine used a photomontage to depict the visual clutter on Speedway near Country Club Road—largely due to the proliferation of signs.

Since then, the street has vastly improved in appearance. But could that be about to change?

Two years ago, when the City Council began discussing the preservation of Tucson's historic signs, the focus was on "restoration, adaptive reuse, and relocation." Today, a proposed ordinance would also allow exact replicas of signs in place prior to 1961.

"We lost so many (historic) signs; 90 percent of them are gone," laments Carlos Lozano, chair of the subcommittee that prepared the proposal. "Bearing that in mind, along with the huge expense and (the sign) not advertising a current business, why not allow them?"

Tucson's historic preservation officer, Jonathan Mabry, doubts that many replicas will be installed. However, Kathy McLaughlin, a member of the Citizens' Sign Code Committee, has another perspective.

"I suspect there are (sign) interests who would love to sell and put up replicas," McLaughlin warns. "There are ways this ordinance can be exploited that way."

The proposal says that replica signs must be installed at their original location. Thus, sites along Speedway Boulevard could be candidates for fake historic signs. The draft ordinance allows both historic and existing signs on the same site, because the square footage of the additional sign would "not count toward the maximum total sign area" imposed by the sign code.

Historic signs could also be moved to another site. According to the proposed ordinance, these locations can be anywhere within an area of "concentration," which is defined as including three historic signs within just more than one mile of road.

"These signs were designed to be visual to a driver at speeds of a motor vehicle," Mabry explains of the sign-concentration philosophy. "There's a visual connection when one sign is within sight of another."

Lozano refers to the relocation of historic signs as a "last resort prior to demolition." He adds that there are a lot of strict guidelines that limit what could be done.

Having been involved with sign issues for years, Mark Mayer has serious concerns with the ordinance. He calls the concentration approach "wackadoodle" and supports allowing sign relocations only in "exceptional cases." These, he says, could include moving signs to a well-defined area such as a motel strip.

From her perspective, McLaughlin would like to see the ordinance limited to existing historic signs—with it excluding replicas or relocations.

"I'm in favor of allowing existing historic signs to be taken down, (refurbished) and put back up," she says.

Mabry stresses that under current regulations, if a historic sign is taken down for maintenance, it can't go back up. To change that while encouraging the costly repair of these signs, the proposed ordinance not only allows renovation of signs erected before 1975, but also permits current businesses to discreetly advertise themselves on the refurbished signs.

But McLaughlin fears what she sees as "unintended consequences" of the proposal. "This ordinance has tried to touch too many bases," she warns. "We might not have sign wars right away, but maybe over time."

Mayer would like to see the City Council reject the ordinance and instead adopt "a list of signs that have broad community acceptance as having historic value."

If the proposed ordinance is approved, Mayer thinks it will give big businesses like car dealerships an incentive to install historic or replica signs at their locations. "It will open the door for huge signs in inappropriate areas around the city," Mayer says.

On the other hand, Mayer doesn't think the ordinance will generate much additional interest beyond big businesses because of the cost and regulations involved.

James Carpentier represents the sign industry and calls the ordinance's requirements "a little cumbersome."

"We'd clearly like to see the process not be so difficult," Carpentier says, "and think that as time goes on, the city may look at that."

Despite that reservation, Carpentier plans to attend the public hearing to support the ordinance.

Lozano also hopes for its approval. "We've worked on it for 15 months," he emphasizes.

Mabry believes the proposal has wide public support. The Tucson-Pima County Historical Commission and the sign-code committee have endorsed earlier versions.

In addition, numerous letters backing the ordinance have been sent, and some City Council members expressed support at a study session last week.

"I'm certainly satisfied with the work that's been done," commented Ward 3 representative Karin Uhlich.

While also voicing approval, Ward 1 Councilmember Regina Romero did recommend substantially lowering the expensive fees for historic signs.

Romero additionally stated: "I don't want to see a proliferation (of signs) around town where they shouldn't be."