A look at draft two of reformed sign regulations

The sign control working group of the Philadelphia City Planning Commission introduced a second draft of the reformed sign regulations Tuesday afternoon in an information-only presentation to the Commission. The latest draft was presented by Don Elliott, of Clarion Associates, who worked closely on the larger zoning reform project.

A first draft of the updated sign controls was released earlier this year. That draft laid out condensed and clarified sign types and characteristics, modified the permitted sign area in most districts, and updated the replacement ratio for non-accessory signs.

Most of the major provisions of the new sign chapter are unchanged from the first draft, but several important changes have been made.

In the first draft, window signs were included in the definition of wall signs, but in the new draft, they are treated separately. A window sign is now defined as, Any sign, including decals, that is attached to, affixed to, etched into, leaning against, or otherwise placed within 18 in. of a street-facing window or door in a manner so that the sign message is visible from the outside of the building.”

During the working group’s civic engagement meetings, a number of participants asked how public-facing signs placed inside retail units would be regulated. The new draft of the sign control chapter provides that answer.

In addition, the definition of a wall sign in the second draft includes any sign that extends 12 inches or less from the wall of a bay window parallel to the building façade.

Also in the new draft, the total permitted sign coverage of transparent window area is raised. The new draft allows 20 percent of window area to be covered in signs, while the first draft limited it to 15 percent.  

The second draft removes special sign controls for the South Street/Head House Square Area, and for Neighborhood Commercial Area Overlays in the vicinities of East Falls, Passyunk Avenue, Ridge Avenue, and City Avenue.

Under the new draft, temporary window signs may be placed without obtaining a permit, as may temporary signs of 6 square feet or less in a residential district, or 12 square feet or less in a commercial district. Temporary signs are defined as signs which are displayed for up to 6 months, or up to a year for real estate signs.

One interesting provision of the new sign regulations deals with calculating the area of irregularly shaped signs. In the case of an oddly shaped logo or design on a wall or window, the area is calculated by drawing the smallest possible “imaginary rectangle of vertical and horizontal lines” around each of its outer points. For freestanding signs, everything but “supporting columns, uprights, or braces” counts toward the total sign area. In the case of three-dimensional signs, the area of each face of the sign counts toward the total sign area.

One provision which was introduced in the first draft bears review here. Currently in place in Philadelphia is a replacement ratio for the construction of new non-accessory signs, the most common example of which is a billboard. That means that any time a sign-builder wants to put up a new billboard, she has to take down another one of the same size.

The new sign chapter embellishes that regulation. Rather than a simple citywide 1-to1 replacement ratio, the new sign chapter contains three separate districts: permitted locations, prohibited locations, and removal areas. In the first, non-accessory signs are simply allowed; in the second, they are simply forbidden; and in the latter, their removal is encouraged. The replacement ratio is different in each of these districts.

Permitted locations are the only areas in which new non-accessory signs may be erected. If you want to build a digital billboard in a permitted area by removing another billboard in a digital area, the replacement ratio is 4-to-1—you’d have to take down 400 square feet of billboard for every 100 square feet you construct. If you want to build a non-digital sign in a permitted location by taking down a digital sign in a prohibited location, the ratio is 2-to-1. Essentially, the new replacement ratios serve to encourage the removal of non-accessory signs in chosen areas by making the removal burden in those areas lighter.

New to the second draft are three more provisions to the non-accessory sign removal regulation. These stipulate that a sign builder must provide proof of the existing signs which he intends to take down, that the owner of the existing signs acknowledges their removal, and that the signs must be removed before construction begins on the new signs.

The Planning Commission intends to send a final draft of the reformed sign regulations to City Council in May, so that Council can review and, hopefully, adopt them before its mid-June recess. If that goes according to the plan, the sign controls will take effect at the same time as the rest of the zoning code, on August 22 of this year.

Contact the reporter at jaredbrey@gmail.com and follow him on Twitter @jaredbrey

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