It’s a sign: Downtown buildings battle for signage

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Don Day

It didn’t catch much notice. By itself, it wasn’t really a big deal. But it was the latest milestone in a long program that’s been grinding away since the late 1980s.

The sign at Elmers on Capitol Boulevard came down from its 20 foot pole earlier this year. In its place, a new, shorter monument sign that stood no more than about eight feet tall.

The change comes at the tail end of a long process to cut down on visual clutter along Capitol Blvd. Just 30 years ago, the area from the Boise Depot to the Boise River along Capitol was jammed with billboards, spinning signs, flashing lights and more.  Over time, most of that faded away – and the Elmers sign is one of the last holdouts of an earlier era.

Capitol Boulevard is unique in Boise. The road swings around from Vista Avenue – and provides folks entering Boise from the Depot a view of Boise and the Capitol. A 1910s story from the Idaho Statesman heaps high praise on the short two-mile stretch:

“The bridge and the boulevard form an approach to the city which is unequaled in its stark beauty and simple grandeur by any bit of man-made highway in the west.”

That 1980s plan from the City of Boise hoped to cut back on visual clutter and enhance the short drive. But, much to the chagrin of many, the boulevard has gone the other way.

This grainy image from that plan shows what the boulevard once looked like from the Depot:

 Courtesy City of Boise
Courtesy City of Boise

At the time, while signs for Elmers, Red Lobster, Pizza Hut, University Inn and even BSU stand in the foreground – the Capitol is still a main focus of the view corridor.

 The area has drastically changed in 30 years – and perhaps not in the way that big plan had hoped.

In 1998, The Grove Hotel opened at Main and Front, crowed right up to the sidewalk, cutting into the view from the Depot. Other buildings followed, including the Chase Bank building and Hampton Inn & Suites.

Two new buildings will soon open. The Inn at 500 Capitol and Residence Inn by Marriott are going up on the opposite side of the street from The Grove,  further framing the view of the Capitol.

This month – a trio of those aforementioned hotels are hoping to add new, large signs high atop their buildings.

The Inn at 500 Capitol hopes to place a large “500” sign atop its green roof facing toward the Depot roughly five stories up. The sign would be larger than a rule outlined in Boise’s Capitol Boulevard Gateway District guidelines limiting signs to a total of 65 square feet (measured by drawing a virtual box around the logo).

Residence Inn by Mariott also hopes to place a large logo atop its building at about the nine story level – with the full name of the hotel.

Both signs have the preliminary OK from Boise’s design review committee.

But it’s a third sign that’s causing some consternation – and its on the building that is the closest to the Capitol in that visual view from the Depot: The Grove Hotel.

 Proposed new tower signs would be visible from long distances
Proposed new tower signs would be visible from long distances

 Proposed wall signs at street level
Proposed wall signs at street level

The hotel and its attached CenturyLink Arena currently have 20 signs hanging from the structure – including flags, wall signs and an electronic billboard-like sign.  But as was first to report in June, the hotel wants to add three more signs that are much larger than any currently on the building.

One would sit atop the south elevation facing the Depot and would be more than two stories tall. It would include the hotel’s “G” icon and the words “The Grove Hotel.”

In all, The Grove hopes to gain approval for 742 square feet of signage – far more than the 65 feet granted in current city code for buildings on Capitol Blvd.

“Our businesses struggle with visitors and local residents alike complaining that they are unable to locate the businesses and/or differentiate the buildings from others in the area,” Block 22 president John Cunningham wrote in a letter to Boise’s Planning and Zoning Commission.

While the hotel’s internal sales are of course private, a check of its online reservation system shows that in just the next two weeks – six separate nights are fully sold out. The hotel’s hopes for new signs may be in response to the city’s room boom – and new hotels coming online, and with them increased competition

Each of the signs have to go through extra approvals since the buildings they advertise are all within the Capitol Boulevard Gateway.

In a lengthy Design Review hearing last month, the signs left committee members with heartburn.  City staff had recommended approving the Grove Hotel signs – but only with many restrictions.

 If adopted, a suggestion by Boise City planning staff would force building owners to remove the CenturyLink Arena sign and the two banners hanging off the face of the building among others. The electronic media center and flag hanging off the side would remain
If adopted, a suggestion by Boise City planning staff would force building owners to remove the CenturyLink Arena sign and the two banners hanging off the face of the building among others. The electronic media center and flag hanging off the side would remain

First, the Hotel would have to remove all other signs along Front St., with the exception of the electronic billboard. This includes smaller signs for the hotel and CenturyLink Arena – as well as flags hanging from the building.

“It is in conflict with the Capitol Boulevard Sign Overlay District and it’s also in conflict with our Downtown Design Review Guidelines which want us to limit the amount of signage and visual clutter,” design review planner Andrea Tuning said during a hearing last month. “We felt it was a fair exchange if they were to remove the existing signage with the exception of the electronic message center.”

Second, for the sign high on the tower of the hotel – they would be required to remove the “The Grove Hotel” lettering and strip it down to just the “G” icon.

“Ain’t nothin’ but a G thang, baby” – Snoop Dogg

City staff calls the “G” the property’s logo – which is perhaps a misnomer. Most logos include text of some sort (save big well-known brands like Nike or Starbucks).  What they propose – to remove the letters, would leave just a funny “G” that isn’t well-known to almost anyone.

Other examples were brought up. The US Bank sign was added before the sign ordinance came into effect in about 1998, according to city planning staff. The city OK’ed the “Chase” icon to replace an earlier Washington Mutual logo – but wouldn’t allow the word “CHASE” to appear, despite its inclusion in nearly every version of the logo you can find online.

 From the Grove, you can see the CenturyLink, Wells Fargo, Zions Bank, Holland & Hart, Clearwater, Boise State and US Bank signs
From the Grove, you can see the CenturyLink, Wells Fargo, Zions Bank, Holland & Hart, Clearwater, Boise State and US Bank signs

Inn at 500 and Residence Inn pass muster because the signs they propose are just their logo or icon and are asking for more modest sign variances.

But the Grove Hotel is different because of the size of the sign they propose and inclusion of both a so-called “logo” (or icon) and lettering.  Make sense? Not really.

You might be thinking – what about the new 8th & Main Building?  This structure, opened in 2015, is adorned with a dozen signs – including very large building-spanning “ZIONS BANK” and “HOLLAND & HART” lettering on the side of the building that faces the Depot.  What makes it different from The Grove?

One block.

Because that building is at 8th and Main and not Capitol and Main – it doesn’t have to submit to the special Capitol Blvd. gateway guidelines.

My informal polling of folks on Twitter shows that people actually like the increase of building signs downtown.

One member of Boise’s volunteer design review committee expressed angst at the visually shrinking Capitol building.

“I’m looking at this picture and poor Capitol gets smaller and smaller as the year goes by,” Jessica Aguilar said. “Maybe we all agree in concept that the current ordinance doesn’t work for everyone but, supersize doesn’t work either.”

Now, all three sign proposals will be rolled up and heard together at a hearing in early October.

“Staff plans to put together a proposal for what seemed like an appropriate sign for The Grove. They are going to reccomend a reduction in signs most likely.

With different rules for different tall buildings – where does the City of Boise go from here?

“Going forward beyond those three, staff will be looking at what our code should say for those type of signs,” Boise City Communications Director Mike Journee told

The goal, Journee said, is “getting some type of ordinance for council to review. If a variance is needed, (the City should) have a more cohesive policy that makes sense in that corridor.”

Inn at 500 Capitol, Grove Hotel and Residence Inn by Marriott will learn if the time is right for their signs October 3rd at Boise City Hall.

Idaho Central Credit Union Business Banking


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