Signs of change

I’m rattled. Last night’s meeting marked the second time that I agreed with Mayor Mark Kleinschmidt. I fear one of us is making a terrible mistake.

Dwight Bassett, the town’s economic development director, and Gene Poveromo, development manager, teamed up to present a modified proposal to the sign ordinance. The photos they presented showed tasteful signs that were in scale with the streetscape fronting the commercial centers. A development consultant, the manager of University Mall and a representative of the Chapel Hill-Carrboro Chamber of Commerce spoke in favor of the revised Land Use Management Ordinance text amendment.

But a couple of residents spoke out against the revised text change, not so much against the ordinance amendment, it seemed, as against change in the character of the town itself. Both were longtime residents who mourned the way Chapel Hill had changed over the past few decades. One resident asked council to delay voting on the amendment so that she could round up 30 people to come before council to speak out against making the signs more prominent. Call me cynical, but I’d be willing to bet that the 30 people she had in mind are wealthy enough not to fret over the high property taxes we pay because we don’t have a strong enough commercial presence to offset residential taxes. One by one, council members seemed willing to delay the vote for another month.

But Kleinschmidt said he had received calls from small business owners whose businesses were drying up because potential customers had no idea that the businesses existed. One of the reasons the commercial area in Meadowmont is struggling is that businesses there have no visibility from the highway. After Laurin Easthom said she wanted to see a change, driving along U.S. 15-501 or N.C. 54, between where Durham ended and Chapel Hill began, Kleinschmidt spelled out the change.

“In Chapel Hill,” he said, “you can’t tell where the businesses are.”

Gene Pease, had he been at the meeting, surely would have backed Kleinschmidt.

It was ironic that Penny Rich, who pushed for a bill that would outlaw using a cell phone while driving, lobbied hard for outlawing logos on the signs. The mix of colors and fonts would look tacky, she said. Just imagine if University Mall’s sign had a Chick-Fil-A logo on it, she said, laying it as a trump card of horror.

Logos are a way of identifying a business without reading the words. Drivers barreling down a highway or main artery in town shouldn’t take their eyes and attention off their driving while they try to read and process the words on a sign to know whether the shopping center has a place to buy food or clothing or office supplies. Slowing down to safely read signs only clogs traffic behind them.

Council ultimately decided to delay voting on the sign amendment for two weeks so that residents could organize themselves and speak out. I hope the group includes a few brand managers and business people who can convey the reciprocal relationship between businesses and customers needing to find one another easily.
– Nancy Oates

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  1. You don’t need to look any further than those horribly failed signs pointing to downtown to realize that folks can’t read on the road things that look like they should be easy to read on paper. I don’t understand why the Council caved to a single speaker who couldn’t get their act together before THIS meeting (or the last 2 where this has been discussed).

  2. George C

     /  March 29, 2011

    I was disappointed that no one on Council made the point that a number of citizens have spoken in the affirmative on this issue. In addition to the citizens who voiced their approval at the public hearings, the Council’s Citizen Advisory Boards also voiced their approval through their recommendations. The CDC, known to be occasionally tough on developers, voted 12-0 to recommend this ordinance change. It is surprising that the Council so often seems to separate citizen comments from their advisory boards when it seems to me that the role of advisory boards is primarily to provide citizen input, especially on those issues for which citizens often don’t take the time to get involved but for which it is important that Council have at least some measure of citizen input.

  3. -K

     /  March 30, 2011

    The mayor’s joke about ability to identify the town boundary…

    Maybe explains his support for a downtown-like bathtub-stopping no-need-for-signs-here megadevelopment abutting 15-501 in the southern ETJ rural buffer; the real goal is to make it easier to identify the town boundary (assuming, of course, CH annexes the property).

  4. Joe

     /  March 30, 2011

    A change to the sign ordinance is NOT needed. We have a boatload of successful businesses that do just fine with the sign ordinance the way it is. The only ones not doing well are the ones in the poorly thought out Cary-esque developments (Southern Village and Meadowmont). Signs will not help these businesses. Both of these areas will probably be dead zones, retail-wise, for a very long time. The town was snookered by the developers into believing that these “communities” were going to be thriving “villages”, when in all reality, the developers threw the retail pieces in to get their McHouses built and sold. There’s no need to change the unique character of Chapel Hill to prolong the decline of businesses that made bad choices by locating themselves in these McEnclaves.

  5. Scott Maitland

     /  March 31, 2011

    My recollection is that the town council forced both Meadowmount and Southern Village to bury their retail districts so as not to offend the pastoral setting of either entrance into town after forcing them to have the retail district to begin with. I assure you that the developers would never have done so on their own.

    Why is a house a “McHouse” and not just a house? Why is Glenn Lennox not a “McGlenn,” because it’s old? Can you imagine someone suggesting a Glenn Lennox now? Or a Greenwood or a Tenney Circle?Both the residential tracts of Southern Village and Meadowmount are at full occupancy. Clearly people like them and want to live in them.

    Consequently, let’s focus on the commercial side and help it be successful. Our economy is in large part a visitor economy. Visitors don’t know about the retail sections of Meadowmount and Southern Village. A sign is not going to be the horrible blight everyone thinks it is……plus it can help the economic leakage that occurs just over the county border. I would rather have people eat at Meadowmount than at New Hope Commons……

  6. Joe

     /  March 31, 2011

    Scott, you of all people should know that signage (if you’re a good businessperson) really doesn’t matter. I don’t even remember if you have a sign at all outside of your business. I happen to own a public facing business in town with very little signage, as well.

    So sure, I’ll give you that maybe people like those communities, and I don’t, and that’s besides the point. But the point is, I don’t think it’s the lack of signage that’s hurting those businesses, but it’s the very nature of what they do and how they do it and the demand for their products and services that is hurting them. There are lots and lots of businesses in town, including yours, and including mine, that do just fine with little or no signage. My biggest concern is that if we change the signage rules in Chapel Hill in an effort to help out businesses that may not even be helped with more signage, that we’re sacrificing one of the unique things about Chapel Hill that make people want to visit it in the first place. Part of why so many people come here is the appearance of the town, and I’d argue the lack of garish signage contributes greatly to the look and feel of the town. If Chapel Hill were to look more like Anytown, USA, would it really be as much of a draw, in terms of visitors?

  7. Elliot

     /  April 4, 2011

    I totally agree with Scott Maitland on this one and wrote the town council to say so, although my support was clearly not as weighty as the objector’s. How many people drive by Southern Village every day without ever knowing of the restaurants, movie theater, shops or Weaver Street Market? My bet is that most of the drivers on 15-501 have no idea that it is there, even though they could have been in and out of Weaver St. with something for dinner and had a more enjoyable, local shopping experience than by stopping in Chatham county to shop at the ginormous Lowe’s or Harris Teeter.

    This retail was hidden from traffic, in order to meet council approval. But the hardship is not exclusive to Southern Village and Meadowmont. Eastgate has a wonderful mixture of shops that very few people know about. Chances are that the Ace Hardware there could meet the shopping needs of majority of people who drive past it to park in megalots and confront long lines and acres of merchandise at big box Lowe’s or Home Depot (which again bleeds sales tax out of the county). I told the managers at Ace that I had written the council and I heard that most people who shop at Trader Joe’s don’t even know they’re there. Apparently they are not allowed to hang a sign that is perpendicular to the structure, so unless you are directly in front of the business, you can’t see it.

    Pass the amendment, for the welfare of the residents as well as the local businesses.