Tacoma is saying no to feather flags, a type of fluttering sidewalk advertisement that some city officials say is ugly and belongs in the suburbs.
The Tacoma City Council approved a ban on feather signs in its downtown area last week, making the signs illegal downtown starting Aug. 1.
But local businesses say this type of sign — generally resembling a vertical flag attached to a pole — is sometimes necessary and can help them attract customers that might otherwise pass them by.
Council members, before voting to outlaw the signs Tuesday, agreed to work with local business owners in the coming months to find a compromise between no regulation and an outright ban.
At a study session preceding Tuesday’s council vote, Councilmen Ryan Mello and Marty Campbell had proposed allowing the signs for another year. Mayor Marilyn Strickland warned that the city had to do something about the signs before they got out of hand.
“They’re just really unsightly,” Strickland said Tuesday. “We need to think of what kinds of standards we want in our downtown.”
She added in an email Friday: “They seem better suited for use in a more suburban environment with fast-moving cars on thoroughfares instead of a pedestrian-oriented downtown core or business district.”
Members of the Tacoma Downtown Merchants Group disagree, and believe that feather signs “definitely have a place” downtown, said group president Judi Hyman.
Hyman, who is in charge of operations at Twokoi Japanese Cuisine near the University of Washington Tacoma, said that the restaurant’s location on a hill and a one-way street means it could benefit from using a feather sign to help people find it. She had looked into ordering some recently, but stopped when she heard the city was moving to ban them, she said.
“Because we sit on the top of the hill and people are usually walking down below, it offers the opportunity for people to see where we are,” Hyman said. “(The signs) have movement and they are weatherproof to some degree.”
The feather-sign ban will apply to an area stretching roughly from Interstate 5 at its southern boundary to Division Avenue in the north. It will be bounded by Yakima Avenue in the west and the Thea Foss Waterway in the east.
Feather signs have been used to mark Zipcar locations downtown, a use that Tacoma’s ban would still allow under an exemption provided for car-sharing services.
Feather signs also marked the sidewalk in front of Tacoma City Grocer on Pacific Avenue as of last week.
Jennifer Mathews, a spokeswoman for Zipcar, said that the feather signs help when the car-sharing company wants to draw attention to a new spot where its vehicles are parked, such as its location at South 11th Street and Pacific Avenue that debuted in September 2012.
“They’re bright and big and easily visible,” Mathews said.
Tacoma City Manager T.C. Broadnax said that in choosing whether to allow feather signs downtown, the City Council needs to think about whether it wants to be a suburban or urban destination.
“It definitely would distract from Pacific Avenue and everything we’re doing on that street,” Broadnax said.
Councilman Joe Lonergan said that he considers feather signs “an auto-oriented type of signage.”
“The question is, do we want pedestrian-oriented uses or traffic-oriented uses?” Lonergan asked Tuesday. “I think consistently this council has said it wants pedestrian-oriented uses downtown.”
Peter Huffman, Tacoma’s interim planning and development services director, said the council will review its policy and may decide to allow the signs in a limited form down the road, he said.
“What we’ll be doing is going through a process and working with property owners and business owners here in the future,” Huffman said.
Huffman said he’s not sure how long the process will take, but he’s hoping it will be no more than four to six months.
One regulatory option would be to allow feather signs only for special events, such as store grand openings, Broadnax said.
Hyman of the Downtown Merchants Group said that she thinks it makes sense for the City Council to set rules on how feather signs can be used — just not to entirely prohibit them.
“I definitely think there should be regulations,” Hyman said. “But no ban.”
The Tacoma City Council also voted Tuesday to regulate digital signs that display changing messages throughout the city, a move prompted by the controversy over the city’s ban on digital billboards and a recognition by city officials that they didn’t have regulations for the non-billboard digital signs cropping up around Tacoma.
Starting Aug. 1, digital signs throughout Tacoma can’t display video, flashing or animation, and will be able to switch messages every 12 seconds. The digital signs must be less than 15 feet tall and no more than 30 square feet in overall size.
Digital message boards also must shut off between 10 p.m.-6 a.m. in residential areas, while businesses in downtown or commercial districts will be required to shut off the signs when they close. Digital sign boards will be allowed only to advertise services that are available at their location.
Signs for event centers and large malls are exempt from the size and operating time restrictions.
Melissa Santos: 360-357-0209