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Originally published Tuesday, March 18, 2014 at 4:58 PM

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Guest: Signs not an eyesore — they keep historic buildings affordable

A Seattle City Council proposal to ban signs on the outside of buildings could eliminate affordable housing and office space, according to guest columnists Rob Steil and Gary Howse.

Special to The Times

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SEATTLE is graced with a number of century-old buildings that hearken back to the city’s roots. Those buildings stand in contrast to the 21st-century towers that shape our future. Having both the new and the old adds to the city’s character. But a bill before the Seattle City Council would jeopardize the visual history those old buildings provide.

Ask anyone who lives in an old house and he or she will tell you that the cost of maintaining it can be hefty. The same is true with old commercial buildings. Preserving history is costly. But here in Seattle, we know that saving as much of our past as we can is worth it.

Or do we?

Some City Council members want to ban wall signage on the outside of buildings. They say it is an eyesore.

Wall signage, though, is as old as the buildings themselves. More important, leasing that space to advertisers is how many of us in these old buildings make them affordable. Without the signage dollars, these beautiful old structures could become financially unviable.

Take our two buildings: the Fischer Studio Building on Third Avenue in downtown Seattle and the Squire Building on First Avenue South in Sodo.

Few Seattleites would know the Fischer Studio Building by name, but many have admired the eight-story, Venetian-inspired building between Pike and Pine. It was built in the boom years following the Klondike Gold Rush.

A historical landmark, it began its life with large advertising murals on both the north and south walls. What people don’t know about the building is that it houses mostly small, very affordable living units. Where else downtown might you find a condominium for under $200,000?

The Squire Building was built while the tide flats were being filled in 1904. The back side faces the entrance to CenturyLink Field. It began as a warehouse, but was repurposed as a small office building. Today, the building houses nearly 40 small businesses and startups.

What these two building have in common, besides their ages, is that remaining viable requires income from signs on their outer walls.

This issue for the Fischer Studio Building is dire and immediate. The building is facing a $1 million repair bill to keep its back stairway from collapsing and to re-plumb its century-old pipes. The building has exhausted its reserves on temporary patches. Without the income from planned signs on the building, many of the fixed-income, elderly residents of the building would be forced from the homes they have lived in for decades.

We can’t say that we value these historic buildings and profess that we support making the city affordable for fixed-income residents if we want to rob building owners of the means to keep the buildings safe and affordable.

The Squire Building in Sodo was in a similar position following the 2001 Nisqually earthquake. Using the projected revenue from wall signs, the owners took on several millions in debt to repair the building and bring it up to code.

Without the income from the signs on the sides of the buildings, both would become unaffordable. Living in the Fischer Studio Building would simply become too costly. And at the Squire Building, big boosts in rent would drive out many of the small firms there.

What is true for our two buildings is true for many others.

Is this what we want? To make it too costly to live downtown or to rent a modest office?

Very few people actually are concerned about downtown building signs. But for those of us who cherish these historic old buildings, the signs matter very much. The money the signs generate keeps these old buildings affordable. In a place like Seattle, losing these historic structures because some people don’t like the signs shouldn’t be allowed.

Rob Steil is a Seattle property manager whose family owns the Squire Building. Gary Howse is the founder of Seattle’s Gary Manuel Salon and lives in the Fischer Studio Building.

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