Expect new signs on Arlington’s horizon

By Patricia Sullivan Washington Post

Visitors gazing across the Potomac River toward Arlington County may soon find the skyline has a new look: more lighted signs bearing the names of the corporate headquarters that reside there.

The Arlington County Board earlier this week passed a major revision of its sign ordinance, allowing property owners to put signs on buildings facing Washington’s monuments from 8 a.m. until 10 p.m. — and letting the decision to do so be handled administratively.

Some residents criticized the move, saying it would detract not only from Arlington’s skyline but also the look of the fabled monuments just across the river.

“People from all over the world come to visit here,” said Stuart Stein, a freelance assistant cameraman, who was one of the residents who voiced opposition. “We have a special responsibility to the beauty of Washington. . . and it only takes one sign to have a real impact on that.”

A handful of lighted signs are on high-rises in Arlington now, and their presence has irked many residents. But on July 12, the county’s planning commission recommended that all signs higher than 40 feet be banned. That alarmed members of Arlington’s business community, many of whom flooded the County Board meeting to argue against the commission’s decision.

The ability to erect a corporate logo is critical to business competitiveness and willingness to remain in Arlington, especially since Tysons Corners in Fairfax County will soon be Metro-accessible via the Silver Line, advocates said.

“All these companies are asking themselves, ‘Does Arlington not want us here?’ ” said Marty Almquist, chairman of the county’s Economic Development Commission. “ ‘Are they embarrassed that we’ve decided to locate here? Are they not interested in this live-work-play concept that has been touted for the Metro corridor?’ ”

The new law, which the board passed on a unanimous vote after hearing more than 40 speakers over six hours, allows the decision on whether to permit signs to be handled administratively rather than through special appeals to the County Board.

Some residents, and the chairman of the planning commission, called the changes to the sign regulations unnecessary and a possible violation of the area’s civic responsibility to not detract from the somber experience of Arlington National Cemetery, other nearby memorials and adjoining federal parklands.

Ben Helwig, a ranger with the National Park Service, reminded the board of its commitment, going back to the 1940s, to protect federal lands. He urged members to “take the long view” by banning what he called billboards.

The new proposal also included restrictions on signs facing residences, community-event signs in the public right-of-way and temporary signs for construction and real estate firms. But the biggest controversy was over the corporate logos.

Board chairman Mary H. Hynes (D) crafted a series of compromises to limit the impact of new signs while her fellow board members offered their views.

Libby Garvey (D) said she uses commercial signs to find her destination and spoke of her joy at seeing signs light up the horizon after the power outages during the June 29 derecho storm.

“It’s all a matter of taste,” Garvey said. “We don’t live in Yosemite. We don’t live in the Shenandoah. We are in an urban village, and signs are part of what makes Arlington. It’s home.”

Chris Zimmerman (D) and J. Walter Tejada (D) unsuccessfully attempted to bar all roofline signs. Zimmerman said people looking for directions don’t look to rooftops, and problems arise when a company with a sign is acquired, goes out of business or leaves the area.

“Let the architecture speak for itself,” Zimmerman said. “The Chrysler building doesn’t need a Chrysler sign on it.”

Business development officials later played down the possibility of a sudden appearance of scores of new corporate signs. Landlords move slowly about allowing a tenant to put its name on a building. Then there’s the cost and process involved if they decide to go ahead.

But “as new buildings come on line, there will be new signage,” said Peter Greenwald, president of the Rosslyn Business Improvement District. “I frankly think a skyline is a beautiful thing. I think heralding the presence and contributions [of business] is meaningful and important to every­one.”

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