The City Council eased restrictions on signs businesses can display, a move that was celebrated by Main Street merchants, some of whom rely on different types of signs to draw in customers. The council stopped short of allowing signs on public sidewalks. (photo by Brandon Wise)

MAIN STREET — For the last 18 months, Frank Strauss, owner of the Fedora Primo hat shop on Pier Avenue just off of Main Street, has put out a rack of hats and a small sign to attract business into his store.

The sign, which simply reads “Hats,” and the rack are both positioned within Strauss’ property line, although the rack might edge a bit into the public right of way.

And for the last 18 months, while city employees embarked on a study of the ramifications of signage and merchandise displays in reference to potential changes in the sign and zoning codes, Strauss has gone, for the most part, unmolested.

That wasn’t always so.

Portable signs and sandwich boards, even on private property, were not allowed under Santa Monica’s sign code until the City Council voted to amend the statute at its meeting Tuesday night.

As a result of that vote, merchants will be able to display signs on their own property, as well as have the ability to affix signs to the side of the building that stick out into the overhead space, and others like windowboxes that are best suited for displaying menus.

The changes take effect June 23.

Merchandise displayed outside of pocketed vestibules is still a no-no, but during what was meant to be a four-month study of the consequences of allowing outdoor signage on public space, very few of the rules surrounding either merchandise or signs seemed to get enforced.

Suffering businesses that took the opportunity to display signs and merchandise reported gains in an otherwise dark period, said Gary Gordon, president of the Main Street Business Improvement Association.

“In 2009, things were scary, and they’re still not good,” Gordon said.

Boutiques on Montana Avenue were closing rapidly, and other stores on Main Street were beginning to follow suit.

“Everybody seemed to be talking about what could be done to help small business. One of the things on the list was to have the city revisit what it had decided about signs and they said no, just flat out, no,” he said.

A plea from struggling businessowners caused the City Council to relent, at least as long as the study period was under way.

The change was dramatic, said Christina Norton, manager at Agabhumi, a store specializing in clothing and accessories from Bali.

Agabhumi took advantage of the unofficial testing period by putting a sandwich board sign out in front of the store.

“I’d watch people walk by, read something on the board, and walk right in,” Norton said. “There’s the instant knowledge that it really does work. You can have only so much advertising presence in certain places.”

Much like Fedora Primo, which is hard to see because it is set back on a side street, Agabhumi sits back on the sidewalk, slightly recessed from main foot traffic.

“It’s important for us to have something that will stick out,” Norton said. “It’s easy to glaze over it.”

As for the other options which will be permitted next month, the signs that project out from the side of the building have to be approved by the Architectural Review Board, which can be a long and expensive process, Gordon said.

“It’s a lot different than an A-frame chalkboard you stick outside and write, ‘I’ve got shoes and hamburgers today,’” Gordon said. “It takes a certain amount of time and money.”

While business owners and advocates protest that restricting the signs denies them tools they need to weather the “pre-recovery” economy, the City Attorney’s Office maintained that they couldn’t put up signs in public spaces without opening it up to everyone.

And they meant everyone.

“I hate raining on people’s parades, especially when they’re having a hard time,” said City Attorney Marsha Moutrie. “It isn’t just sign creepage, although that’s a problem. The First Amendment law is so difficult to conform to.”

If the businesses are allowed to have signs, so can food trucks, religious groups and political groups.

“It doesn’t allow us to favor commercial over non-commercial,” Moutrie said.

Enforcement also must be dealt out evenly or the ordinance will become completely unenforceable under law, Moutrie said.

For the time being, ordinance or no ordinance, Strauss will continue to put out his rack of hats.

The merchandise falls under another code, which was not voted upon by the City Council on Tuesday, although elected officials directed staff to look at how merchandise could be better displayed.

“The rack is just so important,” Strauss said. “I couldn’t even tell you how many people come in.”

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