City Hall eases sign, display regulations on Alexandria shops

By Derrick Perkins

City Hall eased restrictions on business signs in the historic districts last month, but officials warned shop owners they would begin enforcing regulations again after the holidays.

The changes, approved by both boards of architectural review, include allowing “small, tastefully-scaled contact information” — like a website address, telephone number and increasingly popular QR codes.

“What we’ve been trying to do is work with the local business community, through the Alexandria Small Business Development Center and the chamber of commerce, and listen to them. They’re saying, ‘Hey there is this new technology called QR codes. We’d really like to put QR codes on our windows or door,’” said Al Cox, city preservationist. “Those didn’t exist in 1993 [when the regulations were crafted].”

Officials also OK’d synthetic materials for projecting, hanging or wall-mounted business signs. The changes represent the latest efforts to make life easier for Old Town and Parker-Gray business owners, Cox said. The Boards delegated most sign-related decisions to city staff a few years ago, freeing businesses from the time and cost of going before the BAR.

The regulations, which include bans on internally illuminated signs and animated displays, keep King Street from turning into the Las Vegas strip or New Orleans’ Bourbon Street, Cox said.

“The [BAR] has always had to apply the citywide sign ordinance, and the historic district design guidelines gave some more specific directions. … It was a little bit more restrictive in Old Town to try and maintain the architectural character and ambience,” he said. “[Bourbon Street] is definitely not anything we want here, where every business has a huge amount of neon signs.”

While shop owners welcome any opportunity to advertise, most recognize the regulations exist to keep Alexandria’s historic districts attractive to potential customers, said Bill Reagan, executive director of the small business development center.

“It’s walking a really [fine line] between wanting to market your business and wanting to attract customers into your store with banners, with things on your window, but also needing to preserve the attractive look of the community itself,” he said.

Elizabeth Todd, owner of the Shoe Hive and founder of the Old Town Boutique District, welcomed the changes.

“I think things just kind of changed quickly, and the laws didn’t change. When I opened nine years ago I didn’t have a website, Facebook page or Twitter, I think it’s just them catching up,” Todd said.

As they relaxed guidelines on local shops, city officials also warned they would crack down on infringements — like sandwich boards, televisions in windows and LED-lit signs — as soon as the holiday shopping season ended. City Hall temporarily eased up on business owners during the recession and subsequent recovery, Cox said.

“We’ve been really trying to be business friendly to our small local businesses,” he said. “We haven’t been doing the amount of enforcement we have been doing in the past. The economy here is relatively stable, and some of those signs are starting to get out of control.”

Cox believes meeting with local businesses as well as coordinating with the chamber and development center will prompt compliance. If not, he said, the city can fine repeat offenders.

But Cox hopes it doesn’t come to that.

“Our goal is compliance and not fines,” he said. “It’s to be equitable and fair to everybody. We’re not going to enforce it in the 100 block and not in the 300 block of King Street. … It’s always easier to beg forgiveness than ask permission, and we’re trying to make it so much easier to ask permission.”

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