Tucson Progressive

Pamela Powers, a progressive voice for Arizona

Tucson Sign Code: Big sign cheerleaders need effectiveness data (updated)

Larger commercial signage will now be allowed along Tucson's scenic routes. (Photo Credit: Pamela Powers)

Business-friendly whiners made the front page of the Arizona Daily Star today– with old news. The story– Tough Times Make City’s Sign Code a Target— features three business owners who are perpetual complainers about Tucson’s sign code. (Although two of them were allowed to use the offending signs after appeal, they’re still whining about them.)

The third complainer is Thoroughbred Nisson– who bought the old Kinney Shoe Store building and its GIANT, old, ugly sign across the street. The sign code says that old, non-compliant signs are grandfathered in and can be used until the business changes hands. If the business type remains the same (ie, a restaurant opens where an old restaurant was), the non-compliant sign can be used– regardless how old, ugly, and out-of-scale it may be. If the business type changes, the signage is subject to review.

Thoroughbred Nisson tried to play the historic card with the old Kinney Shoe Store sign– erected on east Broadway Blvd. in 1960 (during the same era when Life Magazine said Speedway Blvd. was the ugliest street in America). It was 3x as tall and almost 4x as big as new signs, and there was nothing esthetically pleasing about it. I agree with the decision to tear that sign down and with the neighborhood opposition to that sign. Quoting the Star: “As Ron Spark of El Encanto Estates argued in a letter to the city, it would be a charade to classify ‘older, oversized, grotesquely ugly signage’ as historical.” What the Star article doesn’t report is that Spark was only one of many neighbors who were tired of looking at that sign.

Interestingly enough, businessman and would-be Republican mayoral candidate Shaun McClusky, who was trying to make a case for big signs, actually made a case for the effectiveness of small signs.

The Internet is great, McClusky said, “but I’m in the real estate business. We can advertise a property on 18 websites on a daily basis, but I get far more calls from dropping signs in front yards.”.

Summarily dissing Internet advertising because yard signs are effective real estate tools is silly. Receiving more calls from small real estate signs has more to do with the property the sign is in front of than the sign. If he’s not getting hits from the websites, try a different website! Also, does he know how many people looked at the house on the web before they drove by?

I think GIANT sign cheerleaders would have a more convincing case if they actually had data to show that GIANT signs bring in more business than sign-code-compliant signs. Yes, they can be seen, but does that translate to sales?

Is a sign code actually bad for business? I don’t think so.

Take Palm Springs as a good example of a thriving metropolis with strict signs and LOTS of business. On a recent trip to Palm Springs, I was impressed with the short, tasteful signs and almost complete lack of billboards. We stayed in one of the five or so hotels near their convention center and enjoyed breakfast in a quaint shopping/restaurant area nearby. We thought, “This is what downtown Tucson should look like!”

In this electronic age, giant signs and billboards are dinosaurs. A tasteful, READABLE sign that includes the business name + street number is only one component of a marketing plan. Businesses also should have a well-designed, functional, and up-to-date website, a facebook account, a Twitter account, a stylish business card, and membership in one or more networking groups. And, if you want eye-catching signage, get a car wrap.

March 22 update: The Tucson City Council will hear a sign code variance appeal at tonight’s meeting (March 22, 2011). The Jewish Community Center– a beautifully design building set into the Catalina Mountains– wants to cover the south face of their building with a billboard.  The center already has one non-compliant, over-sized sign. Now they want a billboard, which will not only destroy the architectural elegance of their building but also destroy our view of the Catalina Mountains. If they are allowed to erect this billboard, every time you sit on a bench at Brandi Fenton Park to watch the sunset over the Catalinas, you will see a billboard.

11 comments on “Tucson Sign Code: Big sign cheerleaders need effectiveness data (updated)

  1. Martha Retallick
    March 21, 2011

    In the state of Vermont, billboards are illegal. However, you can list your business on a state-approved directional sign. I’m sure that there’s some fee for doing so, but it’s not like it will bankrupt a small business.
    I have family in Vermont, some of whom run small businesses, and I have yet to hear a single complaint from them about the state’s sign code. If anything, they and their friends like how their state isn’t cluttered with this, that, or the other sign.


  2. John Meyer
    March 21, 2011

    First, the sign is on 22nd St., not Broadway. Second, do you really think that tearing down that sign is going to make 22nd attractive? Third, what does your photo with the first-rate Photoshop work have to do with the article? I hope you don’t think of 22nd St. (or Broadway for that matter) as a “scenic route.”

    And who are you to say what is “tasteful” and what isn’t? I happen to like that sign. Tucson’s sign code is ridiculously restrictive. Remember when the city went after the Rialto for using those very nicely done murals to advertise upcoming shows? 

    Long live the Lucky Wishbone sign at Broadway and Swan! May it irritate you forever.


  3. Pete Peterson
    March 21, 2011

    Martha, Thank you!  I hope everyone from your family visits Arizona often and stays in Vermont to enjoys no signage.   I like signs, smaller government, and love free enterprise. It is another great day if Arizona!


  4. tucson_4_life
    March 21, 2011

    Billboards are like bums on 4th Avenue.  Uninvited guests into your world, trying to get in your face saying something you aren’t interested in hearing.  Is that any way to treat a prospective customer or client?
    How about taking the money spent on billboards, and use them to improve your product or service?  The good stuff sells itself, and we all know it.
    You get more flies with honey.


  5. Ryan
    March 21, 2011

    Something I found funny about the article–it seemed to side with the business owners who knowingly or ignorantly violated the sign code, yet in each instance they were granted an exception, despite their mistake. And they still complain. I guess some people want to return to this:


  6. Jim Hannley
    March 21, 2011

    As a member of the Sign Code Advisory and Appeals Board (SCAAB), I appreciate your response to the article appearing in the Az Daily Star today. I believe that the argument  that since the SCAAB routinely grants variances we should adjust the code to allow for every variance the SCAAB has granted is a faulty argument. The SCAAB’s first responsibility is to the public and if the public’s welfare is not compromised then to the applicant. The vast majority of signs installed in Tucson are code compliant and need not seek a variance. The code is quite generous within the City limits and recently, the Mayor and Council amended more than a decade of Scenic Corridor code to allow for more signage. It is irresponsible of the Star to print an article which relies on a few anecdotes to demonstrate that a system is broken. The SCAAB for years has protected the public interest while making allowances for situations which call for variances, that is in support of businesses.


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The Tucson Progressive: Pamela J. Powers

I stand on the side of Love. I believe in kindness to all creatures on Earth and the inherent self-worth of all individuals–not just people who agree with me or look like me.

Widespread economic and social injustice prompted me to become a candidate for the Arizona House, representing Legislative District 9 in the 2016 election.

My platform focused on economic reforms to grow Arizona’s economy, establish a state-based public bank, fix our infrastructure, fully fund public education, grow local small businesses and community banks, and put people back to work at good-paying jobs.

In the Arizona House, I was a strong voice for fiscal responsibility a moratorium on corporate tax breaks until the schools were fully funded, increased cash assistance to the poor, expansion of maternal healthcare benefits, equal rights, choice, unions, education at all levels and protecting our water supply.

After three terms, I retired from the Arizona Legislature in January 2023 but will continue to blog and produce my podcast “A View from the Left Side.”

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