Old Town retailers reframing A-frame sign debate

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By James Cullum (File photo)

Some Old Town retailers are crying foul over the recent enforcement of the city’s long-standing prohibition against A-frame signs in front of their shops on sidewalks along King Street. The first offense is met with a $100 fine, followed by $250 and then $500 for additional offenses.

“This is the holiday season when businesses are doing everything they can to promote themselves,” said Victoria Vergason, owner of The Hour at 1015 King St. “A-frame signs are an affordable marketing tool for businesses.”

Vergason has owned the Hour for seven years, and admits to illegally posting an A-frame, for which she paid $200, outside her store for the last four years.

“I knew when I opened it was not something the city would allow,” she said. “But over time, they started allow- ing side streets to have A- frames, and it crept around to King Street.”

The city’s policy against A-frame signs dates back to 1981, but lack of enforcement led to a widespread disregard for the rules. Some retailers on King Street found themselves at a disadvantage for years, as nearby stores had their A-frame signs — legal on side streets, but not the main drag — displayed and unregulated.

In 2009, city officials offered a compromise through its Wayfinding Signage Program, providing a “coordinated A-frame” program in Old Town to reduce visual clutter by listing businesses on every respective block of King Street.

But the system was prone to neglect, as it would take time to amend those signs with the arrival and departure of merchants. It has since been updated, and new signs with replaceable nameplates are planned for installation at intersections on King Street.

Safety and clutter concerns came to a head last year, and city council created an ad hoc group of 16 representatives from business, civic, historic and neighbor- hood groups. That group met eight times until last May, when city council approved the planning commission’s recommendation to prohibit the nongovernmental signs in public rights-of-way in the Old and Historic District.

That means A-frames are allowed in front of businesses throughout the city, except in Old Town, said Danielle Romanetti, who served on the ad hoc group and owns Fibre Space at 1219 King St.

“While the city wasn’t en- forcing the signs, we experienced an enormous turnover of business and now have empty storefronts all over town,” Romanetti said. “The A-frame signs obviously weren’t helping to keep businesses alive and strong. And many of us who are doing well do not have these signs.

“As business owners, our attention should be focused on how to activate our public spaces, enhance the beauty of our streetscape and attract locals from the DMV to Old Town to shop and dine.”

Compounding the issue is a September 2015 U.S. Supreme Court decision, which found that Gilbert, Ariz., could not regulate the size or content of religious signs. The decision meant previous restrictions in Alexandria banning retailers from mentioning their products or services on signs could be deemed unconstitutional.

It also meant retailers potentially could post any message on their signs, and that vacant space on A-frames could be sold for corporate advertising and marketing efforts.

In May, council added instructions that the newly ad- opted regulations be revisited in six and then 12 months. And now a new petition to reconvene the committee has 120 signatures.

One of the signers is Jody Manor, owner of Bittersweet Catering, which was a cafe in the 800 block of King St. for over 30 years. Manor wrote a letter in the November 3 edition of the Times decrying the newly enforced regulations.

“It’s foolish on the city’s part with all this upheaval of businesses and empty storefronts,” Manor said. “I invite you to walk up King Street, up those 17 blocks between the waterfront and the Metro.

So, the answer is to make them legal everywhere else in the city? This is the place where we have one of the biggest problems with retail, so why are we taking away one of their tools?”

Vice Mayor Justin Wilson said he is open to further discussion.

“When we started to look at this issue, we did what we do in Alexandria and made a committee,” he said. “The chamber was represented, and I believe all of the players in the picture were pretty representative of the community. They met for quite a while, worked through this and came to the conclusion that a change was not only necessary but appropriate.

“I understand there are concerns out there, and we can certainly have a conversation about a desire to revisit this. Nothing is ever final in Alexandria, of course.”

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