The Pensacola City Council voted Monday to allow developers of a new downtown hotel to use internally illuminated signage, moments after council president Brian Spencer walked out of the meeting.
Developers of the new Holiday Inn Express on East Main Street plan to mount two 24 foot by 4 foot internally-lit “blade” signs to the walls of the five-story building. Internally-lit signage isn’t typically allowed in historic districts such as the Palafox Historic Business District, within which the hotel is located.
Monday’s vote was the third time this year that council members have voted to overrule the city’s Architectural Review Board, following a vote in February to allow internally-lit signage at the Bear Levin Studer Family YMCA and a vote in May to approve the Girard Place project.
The ARB denied the Holiday Inn Express request in April, instead approving externally-lit signage. The Tennessee-based developers of the hotel decided to appeal the board’s decision to the city council. To consider such appeals, the council uses what’s called a quasi-judicial hearing, in which council members act as a sort of jury and consider the “evidence” and “testimony” of a particular case.
Spencer walked out of the meeting after an hour of discussion and a tense exchange with fellow council member P.C. Wu. Spencer pointed to a recently-constructed Holiday Inn in downtown Savannah, Ga., built in a historic district which doesn’t allow internally-lit signs.
Wu explained that his family ran a Chinese restaurant in Savannah for many years and eventually ran up against the city’s sign regulations once historical preservation efforts gained steam.
“I’ve said this before — I don’t know why anybody wants to come to Pensacola and do business,” Wu said. “You look at the millions of dollars that have been put into this property, that’s been invested here in this community, and we’re having them go through this for a sign.”
Wu pointed out that internally-lit signs aren’t explicitly prohibited in the Palafox district, as they are in the nearby Pensacola Historic District. Instead, the city code gives the ARB the power to approve signs within the district, so long as a proposed sign “will not impair the architectural or historical value of any building to which it is attached, nor any adjacent building, and that such sign is consistent with the theme and spirit of the block where it is to be located.”
The adjacent Bank of Pensacola building uses signage which is backlit, but not internally-illuminated.
Spencer tried to respond before ultimately being interrupted by Wu.
“Mr. Wu, you know, it’s an emotional argument you make as you talk about your father and the restaurant in the 50s,” Spencer said. “To compare the purchase of this land with what happened with the exodus of downtowns in the 50s, and certain those who struggled like your father and my father —”
“I don’t understand,” Wu said. “Point of order. How does this relate to the sign?”
As Spencer began speaking again, Wu again interrupted. “How does this relate to the sign?”
“Okay, let me see if I can do it, Mr. Wu,” Spencer said, clearly frustrated. “What I was hoping, is that while all of the other people in this same district could have done more internal illumination, they listen to the ARB, seek some level of compromise, and that’s all that I’m hoping can come out of this meeting.”
“Well, they were afraid to fight City Hall also,” Wu quipped.
With that, Spencer began gathering his things.
Minutes later, Councilwoman Sherri Myers asked if it was appropriate to call for a vote during a quasi-judicial meeting.
“You can do it, and you’ll still have a quorum with me leaving,” Spencer answered as he walked out of the meeting.
The council members who remained — just four of seven members present — voted unanimously to overrule the ARB and approve the internally-lit signage.
After the meeting, Spencer complimented the design of the building, intended to mirror the city’s old brick warehouses, like the Lewis Bear Co. warehouse which stood on the site for decades.
“That’s what’s so disappointing, is that it’s an architectural misstep,” said Spencer, himself an architect. “It’s an unneccessary exclamation mark on an otherwise well designed building.”
Spencer said the argument that such signage rules are unfriendly to business doesn’t hold up, pointing to other communities which prohibit internally-lit signs within historic districts but still attract plenty of interest from developers.
“There are numerous examples nationwide, available via your favorite search engine, to see the successful business-friendly signage solutions in other communities,” Spencer said.
Given that council members seem hesitant to trust the ARB’s judgment, Spencer said that perhaps it’s time to make the law more explicit.
“We’ve got to dumb it down to just, ‘no internally illuminated signs,'” Spencer said.