City refining rules on signs in downtown historic district

David Floyd • Jul 22, 2019 at 6:36 PM

In April, the Johnson City Historic Zoning Commission conducted a “complete overhaul” of its policy on signs in the downtown historic district.

“We had a somewhat vague and hard-to-use sign policy that had been in place since the ’90s when the design guidelines were written,” said Johnson City Senior Planner Matthew Manley.

During a meeting at 5:30 p.m. Tuesday at the Municipal and Safety Building, 601 E. Main St., the Historic Zoning Commission will consider a series of tweaks to the city’s new guidelines regarding signs in the downtown historic district, which will build on the changes the body approved in April. The commission governs the aesthetic qualities of the city’s historic zoning districts.

Before April’s changes, signage was becoming a focus of commission meetings as new businesses began to open downtown, Manley said. Applicants were having trouble deciphering the requirements included in the old signage policy, and commissioners were having trouble basing their decisions on the as-written guidelines.

“We noticed that we were getting a lot of requests that ... weren’t aligned with our guidelines because our guidelines weren’t as clear as they could be,” said Nathan Brand, Historic Zoning Commission chair.

The city started looking at signage rules in other cities and created a subcommittee dedicated to revising the city’s historic zoning rules for signs.

The biggest difference was that the city created a “master sign plan,” Manley said, which means the entire sign policy revolves around requirements regarding the number and type of signs. Business owners can have a primary sign, two secondary signs and auxiliary signs, which can display the hours of operation and related information.

“Having that system in place where you have a organized plan for your signage really reduces the amount of haphazard decision making that we were getting from businesses that were just trying to get open,” Manley said.

The changes that commissioners will evaluate on Tuesday include a rule that buildings that have their names prominently posted on the side, like the London’s building which houses Trek Bicycle, would not have that name count toward its allotment of exterior signs.

The changes would also allow an additional primary sign for buildings sandwiched between two major roads, like Main Street and Market Street or State of Franklin Road and Tipton Street, and would clarify the signage allotment for buildings that have occupants on the first floor and top floor.

According to a list of the proposed revisions, upper floor occupants would have their signage included in a directory sign or within the signage allotment for the first floor business.

Dick Nelson, who owns Nelson Fine Art and Dos Gatos Coffee Bar, was on the subcommittee that reviewed the policy. He said the rules approved in April don’t involve huge changes to the policy itself, but it does clarify the expectations of business owners.

“Sometimes a business owner doesn’t think too much about their signage until it’s time to do it,” he said. “And this kind of encourages people to make signage part of their overall branding.”

Brand said people oftentimes think that it’s the loudest, boldest sign that brings in customers to a business.

“In an historic district, it’s really that cohesion across the district that brings in customers,” he said.

Murals in downtown

Nelson is hopeful the commission will eventually pick up on another issue in the downtown historic district: murals.

In October 2017, the Historic Zoning Commission permitted murals in downtown Johnson City under certain circumstances, requiring that they be located on non-street facing walls that aren’t located beside parking lots and be at an angle greater than 45 degrees from a street facade.

Nelson said more permissive rules regarding murals have been helpful in cities like Philadelphia, which is more than 100 years older than Johnson City and has been home to thousands of murals.

“People go there specifically to see the murals, and business there benefits as a result,” he said. “It would be nice to see murals readdressed.”

Brand said there hasn’t been any formal conversations about revisiting the city’s mural policy.

“I would love to see us continue to discuss the mural policy that the city has,” Brand said. “It’s very high on my agenda, but I have yet to be brought an application that does so.”

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