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Awnings used as signs to comply with city codes

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When Blockbuster planned to open up shop in Santa Barbara, Calif., the tony coastal city objected to the video rental giant’s standard backlit awning. Steve Fredrickson, West Coast architectural market manager for France-based Ferrari Textiles, synopsizes the resulting exchange:

“They said, ‘We’re Blockbuster,’ and Santa Barbara said, ‘Fine, we’re Santa Barbara. Get over it.’”

As soon as you put a graphic element on an awning, it becomes a sign subject to the vagaries of the political landscape. Santa Barbara not only forbids backlit awnings, but also limits printing to the valance of an awning. Downtown, bright colors are a no-no (McDonald’s had to soften its yellow and Verizon its red).

“There are municipalities that have sign ordinances that allow only so much of a graphic … [or] it can’t be so many colors,” says Byron Yonce of TCT&A Industries. “In a number of cities, as soon as I put any wording [on an awning], I need a sign permit.” Yonce, whose retail business extends 100 miles from Champaign-Urbana, Ill., says a design (such as bubbles) flies easily enough, but lettering or a logo turns an awning into a sign.

“You are always running into issues,” says Michael Catalano of Capitol Awning Co., noting that it’s not just a matter of code compliance. “You can make a perfectly legal awning in the city of New York. The problem is selling one to a customer. There are so many awnings out there that are in violation that it’s hard to explain why you can only put up 12 feet while a guy across the street looks like he has the Encyclopedia Britannica on his awning.”

At the same time, there’s an advantage to using an awning as a sign. “In most municipalities, they draw a box around the graphics and call that the square footage. They only count the graphics versus all of [flat] sign size,” says Ed Grundy Jr. of Fabritech Inc. “So it gives you more impact as far as what you see. You can have a larger overall ‘signage’ element.”

Fredrickson suggests a little creative license. “Cities are restricting signage on awnings. However, if you put up something as simple as a RollEase® and you take a piece of Soltis® [a Ferrari fabric] with digital graphics inside the window, you offer solar protection and visual impression not affected by the sign code. You are able to increase sales, but not have to increase sales calls.”

Janice Kleinschmidt is a freelance writer and editor based in Palm Springs, Calif.

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