Blue and gold may be the revered historic colors of the University of California, but if a current proposal is approved, they may also become literal colors of controversy in the University city.
Earlier this decade the gold “PowerBar” sign mounted atop 2150 Shattuck Avenue, one of Downtown’s two high rises, caused considerable community comment and criticism. That sign was eventually removed.
Now the City of Berkeley is considering granting a permit to install two illuminated blue Chase Bank logo signs above the thirteenth floor of the same building.
One logo would face east, towards the Berkeley Hills; the other south, down heavily traveled Shattuck Avenue. The eastern logo would be at about the same elevation as the yellow “PowerBar” logo signage.
The PowerBar signage elevated a corporate name high above the city and intruded an illuminated commercial sign into the view shed looking west towards San Francisco Bay.
Each smaller Chase logo would be blue and cover approximately forty-six square feet on an approximately seventy-two square foot background, smaller than the PowerBar sign which those proposing the project say had been 26 feet long.
The Chase logos are comprised of 7 x 7 foot octagons, with four interlocking visual pieces, mounted to a background panel. “Halo illumination” would be used, meaning light would diffuse from behind the solid logo rather than shining directly through it.
City of Berkeley Design Review staff brought the proposal before the Landmarks Preservation Commission on October 7, 2010.
The LPC is granted a role in reviewing this particular signage because 2150 Shattuck is listed on Berkeley’s State Historic Resources Inventory (SHRI), a 1970s evaluation of properties with potential architectural and/or historical significance throughout town.
The LPC review is simply advisory. The determination on whether to grant the signage application is a staff level decision.
2150 Shattuck was designed by David Termolen and built in 1969 as the First Savings Building. Its significance is primarily architectural, since it was constructed with an unusual “suspended high-rise” structural system that had only been used once before in the United States.
It was subsequently known as the “Great Western Building” because of the bank that came to occupy the ground floor. In the 2000s the “PowerBar Building” name came into use, along with the controversial illuminated sign. During the era when PowerBar offices were located in the high rise tower, a Washington Mutual Bank branch was on the ground floor in the old Great Western space.
Now the banking space is a Chase Bank branch, following that the Chase acquisition and absorption of Washington Mutual.
A representative of Chase Bank and their signage consultant from Philadelphia Signage were present at the LPC meeting to present a PowerPoint show of the design alternatives and answer questions.
Anne Burns, the City of Berkeley’s design review planner introduced the topic. “We’ve been saying ‘no’ to them for months”, she told the LPC. “But the owners were calling, saying people are still calling their building the ‘PowerBar’ Building.”
“Due to its location downtown, we feel it is appropriate that this building is observed as a financial institution. Historically the building was considered a financial center…” wrote Scott Newman, Vice President of the company that owns the building, to the Landmarks Commission.
“We feel the building benefits from having an ‘identity’ and we would be pleased to have ‘Chase’ as the named tenant.”
“This (proposal) is consistent with the ordinance” governing commercial signage, Burns said. “We did not evaluate this based on PowerBar. We evaluated this based on our ordinance and guidelines. And our ordinance is very permissive.”
“The current proposed signage is consistent with Title 20 of the Berkeley Municipal Code (signs) and the Downtown Berkeley guidelines as overall building signage in terms of size, the number of signs allowed, and illumination”, Burns wrote in her staff report to the LPC.
In the same document she also said “while the general regulations for business complexes limit location of signage to below the third floor or less than (40) feet above existing grade, these regulations only apply to tenants with no visible frontage. Furthermore, the building owner has proposed the signage as overall building signage and not tenant signage, so this regulation does not apply to this project.”
In terms of location, the Downtown Berkeley Design Guidelines recommend that signs on the upper façade of a building be building identification signs only, while signs for ground floor tenants are to be located at the storefront level…Signage has been proposed as overall building signage and not tenant signage, so it is consistent with this guideline.”
In essence, the staff interpretation seems to be that because the building owner wants to call this the “Chase” building and mount the Chase financial logo on the upper façade, the existing regulations prohibiting display of “tenant” signage don’t apply to the proposed sign, although the ground floor tenant coincidently happens to be Chase bank with the same name and logo.
“The landlord is giving Chase the right to name the building,” said the signage representative, adding that the logo would be up presumably “as long as Chase is here.”
“We have no plans of leaving Downtown Berkeley’s financial center”, said the Chase representative. “We’re not going anywhere.” He said that Chase, after acquiring Washington Mutual, is pursuing “a branding initiative” for the approximately 1,500 Chase branches in California, and is “working with the communities” as signage is changed.
“What you may not know is that Berkeley isn’t a very corporate friendly town” responded Commissioner Carrie Olson.
The presenters emphasized that the sign would not have the bright lighted appearance of the PowerBar sign.
“The lighting here (in the proposal) is very subtle” said the Chase representative. “It’s very subtle, to say the least”, echoed the Philadelphia Signage representative.
“We had the history on the PowerBar (sign)” said the Philadelphia Signage representative. “We know that was a big sign.” The top of the building is “an important place for Chase to be seen”, he added. “Putting a name up where it’s visible from street level and all sorts of points” is a goal.
He mentioned the amount of vehicle traffic that comes up Shattuck Avenue towards the Downtown, with the top of the building prominently visible on the near horizon.
The Commission discussed where the signage might be placed on the penthouse structure of the building. The presentation outlined two options; centering the two logos on the south and east facades, or “right justifying” them towards the corners of the building, from the perspective of people viewing them from the south or east.
City “staff feel it suits the building better on the right hand side” said the Philadelphia Signage representative. “Unofficially I probably agree with them,” but “Chase’s preference is that they be centered.”
It appeared most of the Commission members felt the right justification was a better solution. “I like the staff’s suggestion of putting off center”, said Teresa Clark, new to the Commission at this meeting.
There was some disagreement between Commissioners on the desirability of a 14th floor level corporate logo above Downtown Berkeley, given the community distaste for the PowerBar sign, an installation which had come as a surprise to most Berkeleyans.
“Ostensibly this is our business center”, Commissioner Antoinette Pietras said. “So I’m not totally offended by this sign.” “It’s not that big, I just don’t think it’s that obtrusive”, said Commissioner Robert Johnson.
Commissioner Austene Hall differed, saying “I don’t think it’s necessary to put it up there. You’ll have a lot of people unhappy.” “I hated that sign”, she said of the former PowerBar logo.
Commissioner Carrie Olson expressed concerns about the visual impact of the south-facing lighted sign on views from guest rooms in the Shattuck Hotel, a block south.
She also suggested that the logo could be visible by daylight, but darkened later at night. “It’s too bad the City didn’t consider when it would be turned off at night”, she said of the PowerBar sign.
“We do that now,” the Chase representative at the meeting said, explaining that the illuminated signs of the bank are not lit all night.
Downtown high rise signage has long been controversial in Berkeley. The other Downtown highrise, the Wells Fargo Building (originally the Chamber of Commerce Building) that stands across the street from 2150 Shattuck, once had a large billboard-like neon sign on its tower roof, facing southeast.
From scattered historical accounts, Berkeleyans appear to have heartily disliked the glaring illuminated red sign that advertised the American Trust Company that had a branch on the ground floor of the building. It was later dismantled.
The next controversial sign more than half a century later was the PowerBar sign.
Any controversy over the proposed Chase signage is limited to a single building at present. But if future high rises are constructed in the Downtown, it’s conceivable that owners or tenants would want to similarly “brand” them with corporate logos, slogans, or names, facing the Berkeley Hills and arterial streets.
If I understand the current City of Berkeley staff interpretation correctly, staff could approve as many building name signs as there are highrises, and that signage could be coincidently the same as a corporate tenant of the building, so long as the applicant calls it “building signage” not “tenant signage”.
To forestall that possibility, it would be prudent for Berkeley’s planning staff, commission, and Council, to formulate rules governing visible “branding” of high rise structures and to explicitly prohibit business or corporate names from being displayed on the upper levels of tall buildings.
Since, aside from the PowerBar sign and the proposed Chase logos, no commercial signage has been proposed much above the third floor in Berkeley in recent decades, a workable approach might be to amend the signage ordinance to ban future signage over a certain elevation.
The Wells Fargo Building and the across-the-street Kaplan Building provide useful examples. Both have prominent corporate names placed around the second or third floor, where they are visible for some distance down adjacent streets and highly visible to pedestrians nearby, but do not intrude on more distant view sheds.
View the Landmarks Commission agenda for October 7, 2010, on the City of Berkeley’s website to see illustrations of the proposed signage.