by Kirby LindsayIn mid-July, walking by Gasworks Park Kite Shop, I was surprised to find it open for business. The absence of windsocks, flags or other bright items flapping from their usual posts in the parking strip, what owner Kathy Goodwind calls the ‘wind garden,’ led me to assume the store was temporarily closed.
Many customers think she’s closed, Goodwind admitted, and she is NOT. It is only that, after 9 years of putting out spinning, flapping and/or streaming items each morning and pulling them in each night, she received notice “that we were in violation of some code.” Dave Doll, an inspector for the City of Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) issued a street use violation, and warned her fines could be issued if she continued to put items out. In response, Goodwind stowed the items away and, “for two weeks, people came in and thought the store was closed.”
‘Are You Open?’
Ken Bartlett, co-owner of Stoneway Hardware, described an identical situation. “It’s been 24 years of putting things out,” he explained. During store hours, ladders, wheelbarrows, and palettes of composted soil leaned against the building or sat on the parking strip. This summer they were informed that they could neither place merchandise on the parking strip, nor against the building, without a permit.
Bartlett already pays for one annual street use permit. “About 7 years ago,” he explained, “they got us for our readerboard sign sticking out 13 inches over the sidewalk.” Now he must acquire and pay for a permit, he’s been told, to lean items against his building – even for merchandise that sits on his property, not the sidewalk.
“Hundreds of people commented, ‘I can’t tell if you’re open,’” he explained. After scaling back merchandise on display, Bartlett and his partners purchased “Costco neon” open signs for their windows so customers know it’s okay to come in. “I see tons of places that have stuff out,” he observed about other businesses, “I don’t feel targeted, just that they haven’t gotten to the others.”
Sandwich Board Option?
To solve the problem of visibility, both Bartlett and Goodwind have considered building a sandwich board or A-frame sign. “Personally, I hate ‘em,” Goodwind admitted about the ubiquitous signage. Yet, if she could have a colorful sign that could support a flag or windsock, she thought it wouldn’t be too bad – since she heard sandwich boards are okay. Bartlett also considered setting out a sandwich board, although he knows, “it seems to be a real grey area.”
Tim Durkan, coordinator for the City Neighborhood Service Center – Fremont, admitted the City will allow sandwich boards, in some instances. Real estate signs are allowed. Certainly, all sandwich boards, Durkan believes, have protection under the First Amendment on free speech – yet, they are still, essentially, illegal signage.
Durkan has also heard about the recent increase of violations issued locally, including of one on non-compliant signage (a camel) and a banner. He can’t help directly, he admitted, “my role is to get those complaints up the chain,” and try to get changes made to help people run businesses at the sidewalk level.
Durkan has helped with grey areas. In May 2009, the Fremont Chamber of Commerce discovered a permit could not be issued for the sidewalk sale they’d scheduled for Memorial Day weekend. SDOT will only issue sidewalk sale permits for a single street (think 45th Street in Wallingford), while Fremont needed permits for several streets that have retailers – 34th, 35th, 36th, Fremont Ave, and Fremont Place. Durkan successfully lobbied for a permit, and got a one-time exception made.
With small businesses in a life-or-death struggle to survive a floundering economy, empty adjacent storefronts and increased costs, it seems a particularly injudicious time to be issuing permit violations. Part two of this column will go into the whys of City permits, and how to continue to have a vibrant look to our business district.
©2010 Kirby Lindsay. This column is protected by intellectual property laws, including U.S. copyright laws. Reproduction, adaptation or distribution without permission is prohibited.