Glenwood South restaurant fights to keep hand-painted sign

ccampbell@newsobserver.comJune 4, 2014 

The Rockford’s sign, painted along the roofline on Glenwood Avenue, violates Raleigh’s sign rules. The restaurant owners are seeking permission from the city to keep it. “Our goal is to let them see that this is a unique situation,” said general manager Jason Tran.

ANDREW KENNEY — akenney@newsobserver.com

— Faded-looking cursive letters painted along the Glenwood South roofline point the way to The Rockford restaurant, but city sign rules could force the business to remove the lettering.

Owners of The Rockford will plead with the city’s Board of Adjustment on Monday to let the sign stay. They’ll be armed with an online petition that’s attracted more than 1,000 signatures since it was posted on Change.org on Tuesday evening.

The letters – designed to look like they’ve been on the historic building for decades – were installed by a local artist last year. Jason Tran, The Rockford’s general manager and chef, said the second-floor location was making the restaurant nearly invisible, making it hard to compete after 20 years on Glenwood South.

“Our sales jumped up at least 40 percent when we reopened (after the renovation), and it’s held steady thanks to the sign,” Tran said.

Tran admits he didn’t seek city permits for the sign, because painting directly on the brick wasn’t the traditional sign model. “It might have been an oversight on our behalf,” he said.

Raleigh’s rules base sign sizes on the linear footage of the “side of the building facing the street.” By that metric, The Rockford’s sign is simply too big.

The Rockford’s case comes as Raleigh looks to update its sign rules following a controversial proposal that would restrict storefront window displays. On Tuesday, the City Council appointed an 11-member sign task force made up of business owners, neighborhood leaders and a representative from the city’s appearance commission.

The group will seek feedback and make a recommendation about the window sign rules and will consider other complaints about Raleigh’s rules. Some City Council members say they don’t want to change the existing rules, but others think it’s time for a major overhaul.

The appointed group will look at restrictions on profile signs – the list of businesses at a strip center’s entrance – as well as what colors are allowed.

Jennifer Martin, who heads the Greater Raleigh Merchants Association, said The Rockford issue shows that the city’s rules should let businesses pursue unique ways to draw attention. One idea is to have an appointed board such as the city appearance commission review each design.

“We restrict creativity,” she said. “What if we did allow more creativity? What if it’s not viewed as just a sign?”

Martin said The Rockford’s painted lettering is a prime example of a sign that does more than just advertise. “It’s been viewed as artwork,” she said. “A lot of people thought it was historic.”

She said The Rockford isn’t the only business that has struggled to understand the sign rules and found itself in violation. “A lot of business owners don’t know the proper procedure to get permits for signage,” she added.

If the Board of Adjustment doesn’t approve the sign Monday, it’ll have to be painted over. Tran said that would be “a $10,000 job” on top of the legal fees already spent on the fight. “Our goal is to let them see that this is a unique situation,” he said.

Campbell: 919-829-4802; Twitter: @RaleighReporter

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