Communicating a brand big time
Today at Design Review Committee, Harbert Realty presented a proposal to wrap the electronic message board atop Two North 20th (corner Morris Avenue and 20th Street North, the former Bank for Savings building) with a massive vinyl advertisement for Pepsi (rendering, above). This is probably an unprecedented request, but the message board itself is unique to the City and Alabama, and therefore presents a special context for debate.
The latest technology, ca. 1971
The giant electronic sign, with its ability to scroll messages with some 1,280 incandescent light bulbs, went up in 1971 as a symbol of a new, modern Birmingham emerging from the turbulent 1960’s. Above, we see the new sign in context over a soon-to-be-greened 20th Street North (note the billboard on the right for the new First National-Southern Natural building, now Regions Center). Over the years, the cost of maintaining the sign has caused it to change hands and go dark periodically. Harbert stated today that they can no longer afford to run the sign as-is; they want to convert it to LED technology when economic conditions permit. Until then, they want to hit the off switch, and rent it out for the Pepsi advertisement.
Despite the obsolete technology, and the fact that no sign like this would ever be approved today (there were no design review approval districts back in 1971), there is a certain civic fondness for the quirkiness of the sign. Committee member Mark Fugnitto lauded the existing sign for both its retro quality and its ability from a distance to blend into the urban context. Cheryl Morgan wondered why Pepsi wouldn’t agree to a more custom, artistic banner that would be tailored for Birmingham in lieu of the generically commercial design presented. In the end, the Committee refused the applicant, and asked for him to return with another design.
There is no question the sign is about to go dark; at issue is whether it just sits dark, or gets the Pepsi banner. Harbert’s representative was pessimistic he could convince Pepsi (through local distributor Buffalo Rock) to modify the banner. This unique part of the skyline can be allowed to change with the times. Keeping it special and beloved will be a challenge.
[thanks to Harbert Realty for the rendering, and bhamwiki for the historic photo]
Today’s light-hearted (yet purposeful) post is the first of many to address one of my pet peeves across the city: flagrant disrespect of the City’s Design Review process for renovation of facades (in historic or commercial revitalization districts). Downtown, Five Points, Lakeview, and other popular neighborhoods fall under the jurisdiction of the Design Review Committee, which rules on paint colors, storefront configurations, and signage proposed for buildings within the districts. Now, this is an imperfect, sometimes subjective process–but for the most part the committee strives to ensure that the building’s skin (see previous post) is up to a certain standard.
Here, at the Magic City Grill (which by the way serves a fairly tasty meat-and-three for lunch and a decent Sunday breakfast), you see the transoms covered over with solid painted panels. Not good to start with. But the paint job looks like somebody was either drunk, or paid very little–drips and blank splotches all over the place. But worst of all–the former sign box over the second bay is just painted out–and there is no main sign announcing the business on Richard Arrington (there is a fairly ugly one around the corner on 3rd Avenue). Instead, besides a sign over the fourth bay announcing “Magic City Grill Ice Cream and Sandwich Shop”–confusing since the main restaurant really serves neither–there are two cheap “Pepsi” signs tacked above the storefront. Another very prominent corner, and the place looks like a real afterthought. Good signage and good paint jobs make people want to stop in. This has neither. And those Pepsi signs–well, they don’t belong on an historic building, period. Maybe if they were expertly painted on the alley side(to the right in the photo you can see an expertly painted sign, old school-style: House of Dixie Uniforms).
I don’t think Design Review would have possibly approved this facade “renovation.” If I’m wrong, someone let me know. And the cook in the kitchen didn’t necessarily have anything to do with the exterior improvements or lack thereof: this little post is NOT a commentary on the worthiness of the cuisine.