News: Charlotte Exclusives

Signs of the Times

Will Charlotte give the Bobcats a special deal?

City leaders did the right thing once, can they do it again? That is the challenge Charlotte officials will soon face with a decision on signage for the new uptown coliseum. Like the recent Stonehaven zoning issue, the signage question presents a collision between politics and principle, but in the case of the arena, more than a little of the city’s cold hard cash is on the line as well.

To recap the Stonehaven decision, the city was presented with a developer’s request to down zone a parcel off of Monroe Road and, in the process, approve a connecting road that dumped out into a residential neighborhood. Many local residents did not want a commercial development to connect to their neighborhood, but the city’s long-standing goal has been to try to get new development to connect to old development and thus avoid the “funnel effect” which routes traffic to a single intersection.

The connectivity goal is good one and to the credit of city leaders they stuck to it despite considerable opposition from local residents understandably worried about added traffic in their neighborhood. But now, instead of neighborhood group, the Charlotte Bobcats are calling for a change in city policy.

Plans for the new arena call for a $3 million array of Times Square-style flashing lights and other attention grabbing signage of the kind the city code typical frowns upon. Suffice it to say that if a car dealership on the edge of town tried to erect such signage they’d be shut down faster than they sell undercoating to grandmothers. The catch is that the city will own the new uptown arena and has more than a passing interest in drawing attention to the arena and its events.

The existing signage regs reflect the aesthetic judgment that too many signs and lights create an unappealing visual landscape for the city, that past some point signs cease to be informative and just become clutter. It is an imperfect, hard to enforce idea, but one that makes a certain amount of sense if used consistently, perhaps to keep signage to the scale of the property if nothing else.

But city planners are already speaking of the arena development as a very special case in that the building will serve as the linchpin of development downtown. However, it is impossible to separate the purpose of the building from its ownership. Indeed, the entire vision of the arena area as showcase or “destination location” for the region rest on very specific assumptions about the development. In sum, it turns out the arena development is special because powerful forces in Charlotte say it is special.

Those forces include the city itself, which has millions of public dollars riding on the success of the Bobcats. The city is a junior partner to the NBA franchise. Given that fact there is great incentive on the part of city officials to provide the arena all manner of special exemptions to existing city regs. Signage, of course, is by far the most visible.

But cities cannot long function on exemptions or insider incentives. In evaluating the Bobcats’ request for special signage for a city building, city officials must try to imagine how they would view the request if it came from some other downtown property owner. To do otherwise would be a sure sign of failure.