Save This Sign?

An old Kinney Shoe sign on 22nd Street stands at the center of a fierce debate

Does a little neon make this 22nd Street sign worth saving?

Some people consider a large pole sign at 22nd Street and Rosemont Boulevard historic. Others consider the sign to be objectionable.

Despite a recent decision that could lead to the sign's removal, the argument continues.

Erected in 1961 to advertise a Kinney Shoe Corporation store, the almost 200-square-foot, 37-foot-tall, double-faced sign and its adjacent building were designed as a complementary pair; other store/sign combinations were similarly constructed around the country.

Over the years, the businesses that occupied the Tucson building changed—as did the wording on the sign. One of the building's recent incarnations was as a Discount Furniture store.

Then Thoroughbred Nissan moved its body shop into the structure—and that triggered a provision of Tucson's sign code: The use change, from retail business to service facility, meant the sign should come down.

Thoroughbred Nissan appealed to the city's Sign Code Advisory and Appeals Board last week, seeking a variance for the pole sign.

John Lohrman, the general manager of Thoroughbred Nissan, represented the company at the 90-minute hearing. He stated that the architectural character of the sign was historically significant, in part because of the neon running around its edge.

Lohrman said that the board should grant a variance to preserve the sign/building design combination.

"Allow the sign to stand until the (proposed) historic landmark sign ordinance is adopted," suggested Lohrman. That historic-sign proposal is now in draft form and continues to be discussed by a subcommittee of the Tucson/Pima County Historical Commission.

Jonathan Mabry, Tucson's historic preservation officer, also favors preserving the sign. In an e-mail, he stated: "I recommend that this variance be granted because it meets the recommended criteria in the pending revision of the sign code to encourage preservation of significant historic signs in our city."

However, the staff of the city's Planning and Development Services Department, which oversees sign-code enforcement, recommended against a variance. They listed several reasons, including: "Maintaining the sign at its current size is not critical to preserving the historical significance or architectural character of the building."

Several neighborhood associations in the 29th Street Corridor Communities umbrella group are also opposed to the sign. The coalition's spokesman at the hearing, Mark Mayer, said his group has problems with signs along 22nd Street that don't conform to the city code.

Mayer also offered evidence that the sign was moved in 1977 from its original location on the site. He also pointed out that the subcommittee working on the historic-sign ordinance identified 200 potential signs to be covered—and this was not one of them.

Perhaps the most compelling argument against the variance came from Bruce Daley, the owner of Thoroughbred Paint and Body. The business employs 23 people and is located directly across 22nd Street from the sign.

Daley said he had been encouraged to go into business 31 years ago by the Nissan dealership's previous owner—but things have since changed.

"(He) went into direct competition with me," he says of Thoroughbred Nissan's current owner, "and the word on the street is he wants to drive me out of business."

He asked the board to deny the variance request, saying that the visibility of the pole sign gives his competition an advantage—especially considering that he has extremely limited sign options.

Daley also stressed the architectural alterations that the Nissan dealership made to the structure. "They knocked out the front of the building," he said, "and replaced huge expanses of plate-glass windows with metal ribbed doors."

The board vice-chair, architect Steven Shell, characterized the changes made to the Thoroughbred Nissan building as: "You basically blasphemed it."

After Lohrman disagreed, each of the five board members reacted angrily to his apparent questioning of their qualifications. Committee member Jim Hannley then moved to deny the variance request "in the face of overwhelming opposition." His denial motion was adopted unanimously.

That decision disappointed Demion Clinco, who serves on the subcommittee that is drafting the proposed historic-sign ordinance. He called the list of signs referred to by Mayer as "not definitive."

"I think Thoroughbred Nissan's argument has merit," Clinco said the day after the vote. "I think the sign is worthy of preservation."

Despite that support, Clinco thinks a preservation plan for the sign should have been presented—and Mabry agrees. Such a plan, Clinco believes, would look at issues like the sign's proposed text and its architectural "rhythm."

"I'd be disturbed if the sign is torn down without further discussion," Clinco said.

Pending an appeal, no enforcement action will be taken to have the sign removed. Lohrman indicated that Thoroughbred Nissan would definitely appeal.

"I try to keep personal stuff out of the way," Lohrman said, "but the board was looking at me like a greasy car guy."

The appeal will go to the Tucson City Council—and one member has already taken a stand.

"This variance will assist a local business operator preserve cash flow, create jobs for Tucson and do so in a way that remembers our heritage," said Councilmember Steve Kozachik in a July 6 letter to the board.

Kozachik said that he didn't think his involvement in the case should keep him from participating in the appeals process.

"I wrote the letter as a councilmember," Kozachik said after the board's vote, "and don't have a financial stake (in the decision). ... If they appeal, I'll express the same position."

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