Tucson’s stringent 1980s sign code (plus multiple street-widening projects) have done much to clean up the billboards and over-sized signs on our streets, but every good law can stand some refinement from time to time.
Under the sign code, if you have a non-compliant sign and you want to take it down to fix it, you can’t put it back up. Also, if the property is sold, and the new owner wants to put a different type of business in that location, the non-compliant sign has to be replaced (although they can ask for variances).
In the current code, there are no provisions for retaining and fixing non-compliant signs that may be deemed historically or culturally important– part of Tucson’s sense of place. (An unintended consequence of this is the preponderance of empty sign shells and broken neon around town.)
For two years, a group of Tucson preservationists has been working on an Historic Landmark Sign Amendment to the Tucson Sign Code. This amendment defines two sets of signs that may be able to qualify as historic: Classic Historic Landmark Signs (those built before December 31, 1960) and Transitional Historic Landmark Signs (those built between 1961 and 1974, inclusive). It also provides guidelines to define historic. Besides age, the technical guidelines include: historic design motifs (exposed neon or incandescent bulbs), materials and construction from the time period, and non-rectangular shape. In addition, there are aesthetic guidelines which emphasize the cultural or historic importance of the sign and address whether or not it has been changed too much already to be deemed historic.
Although the city doesn’t have an official, public list of signs that potentially could qualify as historic (if the owner wanted to apply for that designation and come up with a Treatment Plan), an unnamed city administrator shared a draft map of sign locations with The Tucson Progressive. The map was shocking, actually. Marked in green on the map are approximately 85 pre-1961 signs (mostly around Miracle Mile and down Stone Ave. through downtown and into Armory Park). Marked in yellow on the map are another approximately 125 transitional signs spread around town but with a large concentration on Speedway Blvd. — 20+ signs between Tucson Blvd. and Wilmot Rd.
The photos at left represent a few of these signs in midtown. They are all about the right age to be considered transitional, and they all meet some of the technical guidelines. The slippery slope of the Historic Landmark Sign Amendment is that with good Treatment Plan and enough arm-twisting during the variance process these signs could be designated as historic by appealing to the Mayor and Council.
Saturday night I shot video (below) from Miracle Mile, down Stone Avenue, and through downtown to Armory Park to capture the old neon that is left. Many of the signs from Tucson’s days as a motor hotel haven are in horrendous shape, and the sign code amendment would help their owners repair them. I support saving Tucson’s pre-1961 neon signs but not the transitional era signs; I would also support a ~1965 cut-off date. Opening up an historic designation to signs from Tucson’s ugly days could leave us with many unintended consequences.
At the Tucson City Council Meeting on June 28, 2011, the Council will hear public comment on the Historic Landmark Sign Amendment. If you have an opinion, write or call the Mayor and Council or better yet, show up to comment at tomorrow’s meeting.