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Shocking none, BoA OKs illuminated sign on the Drag

Thursday, November 12, 2020 by Elizabeth Pagano

The Board of Adjustment unanimously approved a variance that will allow a new lighted sign on Guadalupe Street. Most of the questions at the meeting Monday were directed at the city code itself, which apparently prohibits illuminated signs despite their well-established proliferation.

The request came from the national salad chain Sweetgreen, which opened its first Austin location two months ago on South Congress Avenue. This second Austin location will be at 2234 Guadalupe St., next to the University Co-op. Eric Beegun spoke to the board about the variance request, which would allow the restaurant to have a neon wall and blade sign, despite a prohibition in the University Neighborhood Overlay against illuminated, electronic or moving images on signs.

Beegun noted that, despite the rule, most other businesses on the Drag have illuminated signs on their facades, many with blade signs.

“It’s important for us to be able to illuminate our facade,” Beegun said. “Without any illuminated sign, we’re at a significant competitive disadvantage to what’s existing on the street.”

Board Member Rahm McDaniel endorsed this statement, noting it would be his first endorsement of a design variance during his tenure.

“How is it that this ordinance is on the books and appears to be almost completely unenforced?” he asked. He questioned whether the intent of the overlay was to gradually eliminate illuminated signs. “If it was the intent, at that time, it appears to have completely failed,” he said. “Because they have not been either reduced or eliminated in the 28 years that I’ve been spending time – more or less three or four days a week minimum – on the Drag.

“This appears to be an ordinance that, if we applied it to this applicant … would be placed at a unique disadvantage,” McDaniel continued. “As far as I can tell, driving the section between MLK and 24th Street, they would be the only business that this ordinance applied to.”

“I believe that if we did not (approve this) it would be arbitrary and unfair to this applicant,” he said.

Assistant City Attorney Lee Simmons explained to the board that it was not the intent of City Council to ban illuminated signs. However, it was included in a series of amendments to the overlay approved in 2019.

Simmons said he had been working for the past month to fix the situation. “It was definitely not Council’s intent to make that prohibition,” he said. “And we are working on a solution.”

Though there was some concern that the sign could be brighter than others in the area, Beegun assured board members that the blade sign would be on a dimmer, and could be toned down if necessary.

Chair Don Leighton-Burwell said he wasn’t prepared to put a limit on the lumens of the sign.

“We don’t want to turn into the Vegas Strip where it’s just this cacophony of lighting,” Leighton-Burwell said. “That said, this is the Drag. If there’s anywhere that needs to sparkle, this is probably one of the more appropriate streets.”

Rendering courtesy of JSD Professional Services.

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