Measure D, which appears on this November’s ballot in San Francisco, would allow new large general advertising signs (aka billboards) along Market Street between 5th and 7th streets.
The measure’s author and chief proponent is building owner David Addington, who owns several buildings on the north side of Market Street in the proposed billboard district. The measure is destructive in a number of ways, which I won’t go into here; needless to say I am hoping that San Franciscans maintain their historic aversion to billboards and ballot-box planning and defeat the measure this November. While Mid-Market won’t be helped by Measure D, Mid-Market does need help, which I also won’t try to describe here, as it is the worthy subject of one or more essays. The purpose of this essay is to correct misinformation the Yes on D campaign has repeatedly put out about the history of signage along Market Street, and what current city laws governing signs allow and disallow.
According to the account Mr. Addington and other Measure D supporters have given to groups across the city, a 1967 law called the Market Street Beautification Act required the removal of all the neon business signs, historic theater marquees, and billboards along Market Street, including the historic marquee and blade signs for the Warfield Theatre, which Mr. Addington now owns. As the story goes, this ill-conceived act sent Mid-Market into a tailspin, making the street dark, dangerous, and derelict. Measure D, they claim, is necessary to bring back these historic marquees, and will restore down-at-heels Mid Market to a thriving bright lights district that will rival the Fisherman’s Wharf as a tourist attraction.
Several elements of this story seemed shady to me.
- I have only heard of this supposed law from the Yes on D folks. My colleagues at the Planning Department seems never to have heard of it, nor have I encountered any other accounts of this law.
- No trace of such a law can be found in San Francisco’s Planning Code. The Planning Code is where most of the City’s controls related to signs are found (controls of a structural and technical nature are found in the city’s Building Code). There is a Mid-Market Special Sign District in the planning code from January 1970, but it is very different from the one described by the Yes on D campaign, as explained below.
- There are two prominent historic neon theater marquees, with multi-story blade signs, along Market Street today – The Orpheum Theater at Market and Hyde streets, and the Golden Gate Theater at Market, Golden Gate, and Taylor streets. If the law required removal of the Warfield Theatre’s historic marquee, then why are these two similar marquees still in place?
- A law like the one Mr. Addington and his cohort describe would be different from any other control in the Planning Code, and would probably be unconstitutional. The Planning Code sets controls building heights, lot coverage, uses, signs, and the like, but is generally not retroactive. Existing building features or uses which don’t meet the new rules become ‘existing nonconforming’ elements, and are allowed to remain in perpetuity, until the building in question is replaced or undergoes substantial renovation, or until a sufficient amortization period has passed. New sign controls of any sort would not mean that non-conforming structures would have to be taken down immediately, unless they posed an immediate risk to health or safety; indeed, such a requirement, if done without compensation to the property owner, would probably be found unconstitutional. For signs, the Planning Code has at times set a reasonable amortization period, allowing the property owner several years to realize the value of whatever original investment they may have made in the sign before it must be taken down.
I spent a few hours researching sign controls in the Planning Code, and in the San Francisco Public Library’s San Francisco History Center and Government Information Center. My research found:
- There is no record of a 1967 ordinance requiring historic theater marquees and business signs on Market street to be taken down.
- There was in fact a Market Street Beautification Act, but it didn’t regulate signs. It was legislation authorizing a $24.5 million dollar bond measure to be placed before the voters in June 1968 for the improvement of Market Street. The bond was approved, and paid for construction of the wider brick sidewalks, granite kerbstones, and crosswalk pavement along Market Street from the Embarcadero to Central Freeway, as well as Hallidie and United Nations plazas.
- The visual blight associated with billboards, especially rooftop billboards, was identified as early as 1962, in SPUR’s report “What to do About Market Street?”. The Mid-Market Special Sign District was added to the Planning Code in 1970, and it distinguishes between general advertising signs (aka billboards), which are disallowed, and business signs, which are permitted. The sign district makes generous allowances for business signs such as theater marquees. Business signs may project six feet over the sidewalk, and can be up to 60’ high, so long as they cover no windows above the third floor or project higher than the roof. Projecting signs with vertical lettering, like those on the Orpheum and Golden Gate theaters, are permitted up to 60’ in height, and up to 100’ above the street, so long as they aren’t taller than the roof of the building. The goal was to create pedestrian-oriented signs to enliven the street without marring the skyline, to create attractive building storefronts, and to dignify the street’s buildings by not obscuring architectural detail.
- 2002’s Proposition G, which Prop D’s proponents claim prevents the restoration of historic marquees like the Warfield’s, in no way regulates business signs; it only regulates billboards. It in fact specifies that “Nothing in this ordinance shall preclude the Board of Supervisors from otherwise amending Article 6 of the Planning Code”; leaving the Board of Supervisors and Planning Commission free to amend controls for business signs.
So could the Warfield Theatre’s historic signage be rebuilt today, under current law? It in fact can – with one change.
Two historic photos of the Warfield from the Public Library’s Historic Photos collection show the Warfield signage. The picture below, from 1922, shows two large blade signs hanging from the building’s corners, one on Taylor Street, and the other on Market. Both signs would conform to current planning code standards – they are less than 60’ high, and do not cover windows, rise more than 100’ above the street, or extend above the rooftop. The code allows one building sign per building frontage, so the two signs – one visible from Taylor, the other from Market – also conform.
Loew’s Warfield Theatre, 1922. From the San Francisco Public Library’s photo collection.
Two marquees projecting over the sidewalk, one on Taylor Street, at the left in the photo, and the other on Market where the current entrance is, to the right in the photo. The photo below, from 1964, shows the Market Street marquee in greater detail:
The Fox Warfield Theatre, 1964. From the San Francisco Public Library’s photo collection.
Both marquees would be legal under current standards, except they could not extend more than 6 feet over the sidewalk. The previous controls allowed theater marquees to extend all the way to the curb. As you can see from the photos, the Market Street sidewalks were then much narrower, and treeless. The 1970 sign controls took into account the proposed redesign of Market Street:
The six-foot limitation is established in large part by the physical fact that double rows of trees, where they occur, will provide only a six-and-one-half foot clearance for signs when the trees are grown to their full spread of ten feet…Marquees, which in the past have been allowed to exend all the way to the curb, must be re-oriented to keep within the six-foot limit; even theatre marquees can be designed with high visibility under this limitation.
So why would the Measure D proponents continue to misrepresent the facts? The most generous explanation is that they are merely confused about both what current law permits, and about the history of sign controls on Market Street. This seems unlikely, considering that Mr. Addington hired one of San Francisco’s most knowledgeable land use attorneys to write Measure D, which changes the controls only for general advertising signs and not for business signs. If it is indeed his intent only to restore the Warfield marquee, and to build or restore similar marquees along Market Street, it seems doubtful he would run a very costly citywide campaign to allow himself to do so, since doing so is already permitted under current law, and Prop D only permits billboards.
The likeliest reason is that this misleading and inaccurate story is more compelling that the real story. For decades, San Franciscans have reviled billboards as blight, and sign regulation has moved progressively towards greater limitations on billboards, culminating in 2002 with Measure G, which was supported by three-quarters of the electorate.
On the other hand, San Franciscans love historic theaters and their marquees, and we are gladdened by successful efforts to preserve and restore historic theaters, like the Castro and the Vogue, and still mourn the loss of other historic theaters, like the Fox, which was demolished to build the lugubrious Fox Plaza.
Spinning Measure D as an effort to bring back historic theater marquees, and even historic theaters, is a much more appealing story than telling the public that Measure D would bring unprecedentedly large billboards back to San Francisco’s most prominent street, including rooftop billboards, rotating billboards, and blinking billboards, with few limitations on size or scope, and regulation and approval effectively taken away from the Planning Department and handed over to a private entity – or that the measure was concocted without a single public meeting or hearing.
Too bad that their story doesn’t jibe with the facts.