Cleaning Up Visual Clutter Downtown

When it comes to business signage, many commercial areas are a free-for-all of ads of all shapes, sizes, and colors.

If your downtown could be described as an “ugly, cluttered, sign-overloaded district,” it’s time to clean up, says Ed McMahon, chairman emeritus of Main Street America and a senior fellow at the Urban Land Institute.

In many downtowns, McMahon says, the root of the sign chaos isn’t a lack of rules. Most municipalities have reasonable sign ordinances that, if they were properly enforced, would greatly enhance the appearance of downtown commercial areas. The problem instead is that monitoring and enforcement are often lax, and over time standards disappear.

One key issue in sign regulation is how to rid downtown of non-conforming signs? This applies whether you pass a new sign code or simply resume enforcement of the existing one.

The most common approach for a sign crackdown is to set a specific date by which out-of-code signs must be removed, McMahon says.

To ease the expense of replacing existing signs, businesses are given a set period, typically one to five years. During this grace period, the non-conforming sign can remain. But when the time is up, the sign has to go.

Another method for eliminating nonconforming signs is for the ordinance to require that whenever an old sign is removed or modified, it can only be replaced with one that conforms to the current sign regulations.

More on enforcing sign regulations appears in the February issue of Downtown Idea Exchange newsletter. Click to learn more about Downtown Idea Exchange and other resources for revitalizing downtowns and commercial corridors.

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