16 February 2011

Neon Signs Banned in Detroit...Good thing the 80's Ended

By Detroit News Tue Feb 15, 11:43 am ET

It's a long way from the Vegas strip. But Grosse Pointe Woods' crackdown on neon signs along Mack Avenue has the community lit up over whether they're tacky or tasteful — and who gets to decide.

City officials are taking a hard line on neon business signs, enforcing a ban imposed eight years ago that gave businesses with existing signs eight years to comply. But a handful of businesses are fighting back, mobilizing a petition drive to repeal the ban on the next ballot.

They say businesses are struggling enough without making it harder for them to stay afloat. And some wonder why the city isn't spending its time and resources on more important issues.

"Everyone is upset," said Alan Domzalski, owner of Elan's Candies with his wife, Valerie, who are spearheading the petition drive to gather 1,300 signatures to put the proposed repeal before voters. "It would've been really easy to turn off my sign. It's just a sign. But it's about liberty for me. You ask yourself: 'Is this really what they need to do?'"Grosse Pointe Woods' attorney Don Berschback said the city has all kind of ordinances designed to make it better place to live and work.

He said dozens of businesses have already taken down their neon signs and it's not that businesses can't have back-lit signs. They just can't have neon tubing signs anymore, not even "Open" signs.

"When you give business owners seven or eight years (to comply), the ordinance is going to be enforced," said Berschback, who noted neon was first prohibited in 2002 as part of an extensive revision of the city's sign ordinance.

"There were 51 businesses that had neon signs" that still hadn't complied with the ordinance by October, he said. "All but eight have been removed or turned off."

Grosse Pointe Woods isn't the first community to make neon a no-no, though it may be one of the only to ban it altogether.

Birmingham allows "Open" neon signs that fit within a standard size and style. Businesses that have neon signs, such as Tiger Shoe Repair on East Maple, were grandfathered in, said city planner Sheila Bashiri. Neon tubing is only allowed if it's covered.

City officials are taking a hard line on neon business signs, enforcing a ban imposed eight years ago that gave businesses with existing signs eight years to comply. But a handful of businesses are fighting back, mobilizing a petition drive to repeal the ban on the next ballot.

Grosse Pointe Park, which has businesses on the east side of Mack Avenue from Fisher to just north of Moross Road, allows neon signs but has strict requirements for all signs. Business owners are allowed one square foot of sign for every lineal foot of street frontage they have.

For many communities — which prohibit any blinking or moving signs — "it's about pedestrian safety," said Nik Banda, Rochester deputy city manager and director of economic and community development. Neon is allowed in Rochester.

"If you're (a driver) distracted on the street, if a sign catches your eye, you're not looking at the road," he said.

But Banda acknowledged aesthetics are also an issue.

"Nobody wants to be Vegas," he said.

Neon signs were first prohibited in Grosse Pointe Woods in 2002 with the plan to eventually eliminate existing neon signs if ownership changed or a sign was replaced or altered within five years. The sunset provision was later extended by two more years.

A history of the ordinance shows the ban was passed to keep "Mack Avenue from having a carnival-like appearance" and that neon "was not a good representation of this community."

But the pink neon in the window at Elan Candies doesn't look like it belongs in a carnival.

Measuring 53-inches-wide by 9 ½-inches-tall with simple lettering, the sign has personal meaning for Domzalski. It was put up about 15 years ago by his mother, Maralyn, who has since passed away. She started the business.

"To me, it's a little personal," he said. "It's like someone is picking on my mom."

David Reed, owner of Tom & Don McCubbin's Barber Shop, has one of the city's oldest neon signs. It's been in the window since 1952.

"It just seems kind of ridiculous that they don't want neon on Mack all of a sudden," said Reed, whose grandfather, father and uncle started the business. "My customers think it's ridiculous too."

Domzalski and Reed both appealed to the city to keep their signs but were denied.

If the city had allowed those signs "if you were the 9th, 10th, or 11th (business owner), what would your reaction be?" Berschback said. "'Why can't I do it?'"But Domzalski scoffs at that argument, quoting author Ralph Waldo Emerson: "A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds."

Once petition paperwork is submitted to the city, Domzalski and his supporters will have 21 days to gather signatures.

Without neon, "people drive by, they don't know the businesses are open," said Domzalski, who noted that Mack already has more than two dozen vacant storefronts. "Why in the world would they make it harder for independent businesses to operate?"

Neon signs

Cities in metro Detroit take different approaches to neon:

Birmingham : Exposed neon or gaseous light tubing prohibited except an indoor neon "Open" sign. No sign shall be illuminated to interfere with, mislead or confuse traffic.

Grosse Pointe Park : Neon allowed; no flashing or moving signs.

Grosse Pointe Woods : Any neon or neon-type sign prohibited.

Rochester : Neon allowed; floating neon, applied vinyl, etched glass and painted images are examples of appropriate window and door signs; no moving or flashing signs.

Photo caption: David Reed, owner of Tom & Don McCubbin's Barber Shop. (Steve Perez/ The Detroit News

Last time I checked this was still America. If you don't believe me, check the blog from Mike Breezy. Has this city really gotten so concerned with neon signs that we have to put a ban on them? Does every city meeting agenda address neon signs right off the bat just to get everyone hot an bothered? Distracted Driving? Please. This is the Motor City. I'm 95% sure I would qualify as one of the top 10 drivers in the state. Show me statistics; cold hard facts that point towards neon signs being a cause of accidents on the road. Oh, you don't want Mack Ave to look like a carnival? Why the dick not? Everyone loves carnivals; elephant ears, addicting games, carnie folk. There's even cities that have a formula for it?! One square foot of signage for every linear foot of sidewalk times Pi. I'm no dummy. I made it halfway through Calc II but I'm not dedicating time to formulate how big my sign's gotta be. I agree with Big Al when he says its about Liberty. Hang your neon sign, I say. The bigger the better! Show them that we will not go quietly into the night...That we will not vanish without a fight...We're going to survive. We're going to live on..Today, we celebrate..our Independence Day!

PS: Hats off to the bro who wrote the DetNews article. Way to throw the word Spearheaded in there. That's probably one of my favorite verbs of all time. Such a powerful action. I use it on my resume. Seriously, look it up on Monster..


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