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You’ve seen the giant wall signs around downtown Seattle, the five-story ads for iPads on the back of the Macy’s parking garage, a snowy Montana landscape on a blank brick wall. The ads are sleek and upscale, more reminiscent of New York City’s Times Square than your father’s roadside billboards.

And the city says they’re illegal.

Last month, City Attorney Pete Holmes sued Total Outdoor
for four wall signs he said violate Seattle’s sign code that allows ads on buildings only if they’re promoting a business or product sold inside.

City officials say advertising companies have sold lucrative wallscapes by offering gift cards or coupons for the product somewhere within the building, even though the actual company and its products were nowhere in sight.

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Now the Seattle City Council is attempting to tighten the rules that it says have resulted in a proliferation of giant signs that has added to the city’s commercialization and visual blight.

“There’s been an egregious manipulation of the rules,” said Councilmember Sally Clark at a public hearing Thursday on the proposed changes to the city’s on-premises sign code.

Total Outdoor executives say their wall signs promote products sought by consumers and generate needed revenue for building owners. And they say that one city’s visual blight is another’s urban energy and identity.

“If you go to New York City, what’s one of the top three places you’re likely to visit? Times Square,” said Bill Ackerley, chief operating officer of Total Outdoor.

He said Clear Channel, which bought his father’s Ackerley Media Group in 2002, has a “virtual monopoly” on existing billboards. Seattle banned new billboards in 1977.

That’s left wall signs as one of the only new outdoor advertising venues.

“Advertising is good for commerce,” Ackerley said. “The new rules unreasonably restrict commerce. They’re anti-competitive,” he said.

Some leaders of the arts community worry that the new restrictions will limit their ability to hang banners promoting exhibits and touring shows or giving credit to corporate sponsors.

Twenty-eight executives from organizations including the Seattle Opera, the 5th Avenue Theatre and the Museum of History & Industry (MOHAI) wrote to the council earlier this month concerned that the new rules would hurt their low-cost efforts to publicize events and reach new audiences.

“One of our best ways to reach the public is to use our buildings in creative, attractive and artistic ways,” said Leonard Garfield, executive director of MOHAI. “We want to make sure any sign ordinance does not preclude cultural organizations’ opportunity to showcase their message.”

The new rules would limit the size of new wall signs to 287 square feet, about the size of a traditional billboard. They would clarify that the advertisement has to promote a business within the building on which the ad appears. And the penalties for violations would increase from $500 a day to $1,500 a day, because, city planning officials say, the current fines aren’t deterring the giant ads.

The city sign code applies primarily to commercial, downtown and industrial zones.

“Seattle made a decision 40 years ago to limit and, over time, decrease the number of billboards,” said Clark, former chair of the council’s Land Use Committee, who first introduced the legislation two years ago. “People don’t want to see a proliferation of what are essentially large billboards.”

Clark gave the example of a giant photo of Felix Hernandez outside of Safeco Field. If it has a Nike swoosh in the corner, and its bigger than the 287-square-foot limit, it would be an illegal ad under the new rules. But if it’s just a huge photo of Hernandez, it wouldn’t violate the sign code.

Temporary signs for arts and cultural events also would be exempt from the new regulations, she said.

Roger Wynne, director of the Seattle City Attorney’s Land Use Section, said the office’s research on giant wall signs shows that they’re highly lucrative. Contracts obtained from one advertising firm showed corporations paying $15,000 to $33,000 per month for wallscapes in prominent downtown locations.

Wynne said that in its promotional literature, Total Outdoor advertises nearly 20 Seattle walls it describes as “the largest selection of spectaculars in high-traffic, pedestrian-saturated areas such as the Seahawks and Mariners stadiums, Pike Place, Belltown and South Lake Union (home to Amazon).”

“They’re saying these locations are available. They need to know that their business model is unlawful.”

Some downtown business people also object to the proliferation of giant advertisements. Paula Rees, a professional environmental designer who works with cities around the country, said Seattle is admired nationally for its lack of visual clutter.

She recalled that in 2011, the City Council rejected an effort by Russell Investments to put its logo near the top of its new headquarters downtown. She, along with dozens of architects and other residents, successfully argued that the city skyline shouldn’t be commercialized.

With billboards becoming dinosaurs, she said, advertising companies are willing to spend millions to break down local sign codes and allow large-scale wall ads. The next step, she fears, are digital billboards.

“Our eyeballs are having to look at things we decided years ago we didn’t want to see,” Rees said.

Lynn Thompson: or 206-464-8305. On Twitter @lthompsontimes

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