Is there anyone in Berkeley who wants the skyline of the city to be defined, night and day, by blatant commercial advertising?
It’s hard to imagine there is—other than, perhaps, a few libertarians who don’t like any sort of governmental regulation on principle, or some property owners who always put profit above community.
However, the City of Berkeley has now allowed commercial signage to prominently mark the tallest building in Downtown Berkeley, and the door is open for anyone else to do the same.
Unless the City clarifies its rules, this will happen time and again. The sky is literally the limit. Advertising, not architecture, will come to define the views across Downtown Berkeley.
It’s been a few weeks since the Chase Bank logo—lighted much of the night—went up on top of 2150 Shattuck, the brown high-rise at Center and Shattuck next to the Downtown BART station entrance.
The Chase signage was administratively approved last year by City planning staff under a strange interpretation of the Berkeley Signage Ordinance.
The Ordinance would seem to prohibit such things as putting the logo of a multi-national corporation fourteen stories in the air above Berkeley. The Ordinance says, “no sign of any type shall be suspended from or attached to the face of a multistory building above the third floor space, or forty feet above the existing grade adjacent to the building, whichever is less.”
In Downtown—where 2150 Shattuck is located—special design guidelines also speak to this issue, saying that no signage shall be on the upper facades of buildings, except “building identification signage.”
City staff interpreted the two sets of rules in a very permissive manner. The owners of 2150 Shattuck essentially asked the City to allow Chase Bank to blazon its logo on the very top of the building as “building identification signage.”
The owners, for whatever reason, now want to call it the “Chase Building”, and that’s certainly their right. But I don’t believe a more careful reading of the signage ordinance quoted above would allow them to slap the Chase logo on the building and pretend it’s simply “building identification”.
City staff disagreed, and that’s why the most prominent symbol on the skyline of Berkeley, other than the Campanile, is now a bank logo.
That’s just the beginning. Under the staff interpretation, anyone could propose a corporate logo atop a building of any height, simply by calling it “building identification” rather than commercial advertising. The City would receive no benefit, other than the fees paid to offset the time of City staff processing the application.
That’s a loophole big enough for a billboard. With Downtown proposed to have several new high-rise towers, some taller than the new “Chase Building”, this is a critical urban design issue.
Do Berkeleyans understand the possibility that every high rise built in Berkeley will sport a lighted corporate logo? Do you want to look out at the Bay view, day and night, and see, perhaps, a “Target Building”, or “BP Building”, or “Halliburton Building”… whoever wants to buy the name of a Berkeley high-rise?
Of course one can’t predict the exact businesses that will buy their way atop Berkeley’s towers. But commercial advertising on the skyline is, in fact, what will happen if the existing rules aren’t clarified.
There’s a simple solution for Berkeley policy makers.
First, the Planning Commission should include in the new Downtown Design Guidelines rules specifically stating that corporate logos are NOT to be construed as “building identification signage”.
If an owner wants to give a corporate name to their building, that’s fine, and they can display it within the existing 3 story or 40-foot limit and the dimensions and guidelines set by the signage ordinance. But they shouldn’t be allowed to put it higher.
Second, if necessary, the Signage Ordinance should be amended by the City Council to explicitly prohibit the same thing.
The key thing is to act now, before anyone actually proposes additional corporate signage on the skyline.
I’ve raised this issue, as have Jim Sharp and Daniella Thompson, who had also independently written to the City forcefully expressing the same concerns. None of us were successful in stopping the Chase logo—which is now there as long as the bank and the building owners like—but I’m not going to give up on the issue of future signage.
This past week I went to the Planning Commission and the Berkeley Design Review Committee to raise the matter. Members of both bodies seemed interested and concerned, and asked their staff to address it.
I’m hoping something actually comes of the interest of the Planning Commissioners and Design Review Committee members. If not, then the Council should get involved in the fall, as the final planning and zoning rules for the Downtown are acted upon.
The view belongs to all of us, not to those corporations who want to buy it.
My previous article about discussion of the Chase signage at the Landmarks Preservation Commission last October 7 can be found here: