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No smoke stack for Atlantic Station?

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No smoke signals

Atlanta law curbing ads a quandary for developer


The Atlanta Journal-Constitution


"Sec. 16-28A.003: Findings, purpose and intent.

The City of Atlanta finds that the number, size, design characteristics, and locations of signs in the city directly affect the public health, safety, and welfare. The city finds that signs have become excessive, and that many signs are distracting and dangerous to motorists and pedestrians, are confusing to the public and do not relate to the premises on which they are located, and substantially detract from the beauty and appearance of the city. . . . "


This sign on a downtown Atlanta smokestack is allowed under the city's 1995 sign ordinance because the smokestack was there before the ordinance.

New York has neon-lighted Times Square. Los Angeles has "HOLLYWOOD" on a hilltop. Atlanta has . . . well, Atlanta's landmark signs amount to a few rooftop peaches.

Atlanta is surprisingly bashful when it comes to signs and billboards. Though never a shrinking violet at boosterism, the city is downright modest when it comes to marquees.

How modest? So much so that Atlanta's sign ordinance is going to prevent a landmark sign from being raised above a project that commenced construction only after civic boosters moved heaven and the federal government.

The potential landmark is a false smokestack -- call it a fauxstack -- that may remain just a toy on the miniature model of Atlantic Station, the megadevelopment being built in Midtown.

The fauxstack cannot be built as envisioned because it would violate the city's sign ordinance. A smokestack that serves as a sign a mile south on the Downtown Connector is allowed because it existed before the ordinance was enacted.

Although the city is constantly under reconstruction, its sign ordinance appears immovable. The 1995 code is so restrictive that no variances are allowed.

The code is a remnant of the 1996 Olympic Games. Tasteful Atlantans who had visited Barcelona, Spain, host of the 1992 Summer Games, trembled in fear that someone might bring to Atlanta the big billboards they found so tacky in Barcelona. It also was a heyday for sign boosters: Two giant peach signs already had been stuck onto rooftops overlooking the Connector, and a former city official had floated the idea of selling ad space on a blimp floating over the city.

Atlanta's director of buildings, Norman Koplon, already has \rejected at least one request for a rooftop sign at Atlantic Station. Ikea, the international furniture store, won't get to build a small box on the roof of its showroom and screw on a big "Ikea" sign. Rooftop signs are forbidden.

The developers of Atlantic Station are in a delicate position when it comes to signage. On one hand, they want to maintain excellent relations with City Hall. On the other, they are in the business of building 12 million square feet of office, residences and retail space on a 138-acre site. People are going to have to find their way around.

"We're building a city from scratch at Atlantic Station, and it's a learning process," says Brian Leary, vice president of design and development for Atlantic Station. "We're just taking baby steps on getting started on signage. The city wants a quality development, and so do we. A question is whether there are opportunities to come back to the city's sign ordinance and improve it."

From his 17th-story office overlooking Midtown, Leary points to the need for more signs to help people navigate from MARTA stations to the shopping and parks at Atlantic Station. He sees neighborhoods on the east and west sides of the Connector starting to rejoin as joggers trot across the new yellow bridge at 17th Street.

Leary crouches over the model of the project to mimic a street-level view of the fauxstack. From that perspective, it is less a big ad to attract people to the site than it would be a visual touchstone to help them find their way around within the development.

"The issue is creating a beacon that is part of a master-planned signage and way-finding system on a scale never before seen in Atlanta," Leary says.

Atlanta City Councilwoman Clair Muller says she's all for revisiting the city's sign ordinance. She voted for the current code and says it has helped create a uniform look for the city. But she likes what she saw in Sydney, Australia, another Olympic city.

"Sydney's downtown has not a single sign in it," Muller says. "They say downtown is their living room, and all the streetscape and benches match. Other areas of the city are more playful, with signs and neon that say 'Come here for lunch' and 'Come here to play.' A system of zones like that would be good to look at for Atlanta, but only with significant community involvement."

Carrie Przybilla likes the idea of zones, too. She is quick to say she knows nothing about the sign ordinance, but as curator of modern and contemporary art for the High Museum of Art, Przybilla knows something about aesthetics.

"You need a different set of graphic standards for a place like Druid Hills as opposed to a place that's urban and dense," she says. "A neon sign in Druid Hills would be awful. But what would the Krispy Kreme on Ponce de Leon be without its neon sign? And Krispy Kreme isn't that far from Druid Hills."

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