Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Sign ordinances threaten to remove character from cities

A recent Detroit News letter to the editor caught my eye this AM.
Sign rules imperil small firms

The Feb. 11 article on the fate of Alban's freestanding sign in Birmingham should serve as a wake-up call to planning and zoning boards across the state ("Restaurant's big wheel seeks new home"). Municipalities have needlessly passed stricter sign regulations that have all but eliminated the ability of small business owners to create similar unique signs for their business.

Furthermore, the increasingly restrictive regulations on outdoor advertising stifle the ability of small businesses to compete with the ever-growing number of chain restaurants and stores. Without rethinking sign regulations, beloved landmark signs such as Alban's and other true works of art will only be seen in museums and private collections.

Martin Engel


Ferndale has a sign ordinance that threatens to extinguish its character, too. Imagine how much difficulty Wetmores might have trying to stick half a car out its second story window given our current ordinances. Yet that car (or half-a-car) has become a Ferndale and Woodward icon every much as Alban's wheel sign.

A couple months ago, Doug Fresard endured an interrogation from councilman Galloway that would give John McCain flashbacks. To demonstrate what a populist he is, Galloway showed no consideration for Fresard's $11 million investment in their new Ferndale Dealership and drilled him about a monument sign the dealer wanted in their front lawn. Apparently the monument wasn't compliant with the city's sign ordinance and despite evidence of its tastefulness and utility Galloway objected, wondering what good are ordinances if they aren't enforced?

After an hour's drilling, Galloway relented and Fresard was able to escape council chambers with a variance, his grandfather's watch he'd hidden someplace council wouldn't look, and a little post-traumatic-stress.

Our downtown's authenticity is born from the creativity of our businesses. I think council should give our businesses a little leeway in deciding how best to promote their businesses, spend their own marketing dollars and maybe, just maybe, create the next Ferndale icon


  1. The City of Lansing has struggled with the same issue. There is a general concensus even in city government that they need to loosen up, and yet bureacratic inertia for a long time prevented action. I'm not sure what the status is right now. The LSJ has written about the issue.

  2. Funny you bring that up.

    Last fall I was speaking with a commerical property owner in Ferndale who also owns a business in downtown Windsor. He told me Windsor doesn't have nearly the number of ordinances Ferndale does, and that starting a business in Windsor was easier and had less red-tape than starting a business in Ferndale.

    Whatever happened to laissez-faire capitalism? More is required to protect and promote capitalism than enjoying its benefits. Too many believe that growing-up capitalist makes them capitalists.

  3. From my understanding, the Alban's sign is coming down because the restaurant it represented has been closed for some time.

    I was not aware of any ordinance forcing the sign down, but if the business is no longer there, it would seem that much more difficult to keep the sign there.
    I am happy to hear every effort is being made to keep the sign safe, however. For the time being, it is being stored here in Ferndale.

  4. The point of the article isn't that Alban's sign should remain, but that given contemporary sign ordinances it may never have gone up in the first place.

    The wheel may have sentimental value today, but will today's sign ordinances allow the creation of tomorrow's nostalgia?

  5. I see your point. Unfortunately, most signage today is made as cheaply as possible, and has little aesthetic value. If you look at a picture of Ferndale in the 40's, the signs are made of a much better quality than today's giant plastic "liquor wine lotto" monstrosities. Perhaps we'll look back on these signs with nostaliga as well in some years, though there may be something to be said for real quality craftsmanship. I suppose we won't know until we're looking back far enough.

    An interesting balance. Not the job of the state to determine art, yet a forest of cheap plastic signs towering over our heads would do nothing for desirability as a location or property values.