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WTF: What's up with the Panera and Outdoor Gear Exchange signs?

Whiskey Tango Foxtrot: We just had to ask...


Published November 9, 2011 at 12:34 p.m.

The Panera Bread sign and the OGE sign
  • The Panera Bread sign and the OGE sign

Warning: This edition of WTF deals with Burlington zoning regulations. If you think you can stay awake, read on.

When the national bakery chain Panera Bread opened a store on Church Street in September, a big illuminated sign was installed prominently above its front door. Meanwhile, next door at the locally owned Outdoor Gear Exchange, the store’s hand-carved wooden sign is under a glass canopy — practically invisible to shoppers passing by.

Seven Days readers may recall the minor brouhaha the OGE sign provoked this summer when the gear store moved from Cherry Street to the former Old Navy space on Church. Owner Marc Sherman wanted to place the wooden sign — which depicts the Green Mountains over the motto “Clothing and Equipment for an Active Life” — above the glass canopy that fronts the Marketplace. He wanted a second oval sign that said “OGE” on the corner tower of the building. Old Navy had large, lighted signs in exactly those places.

But city planners objected, saying both signs would be “inappropriate and insensitive” to the building’s Googie, space-age style of architecture. Plus, the city said they would exceed the zoning code’s 14-foot height limit for signs on Church Street.

Sherman protested, noting that numerous downtown chain stores — Macy’s, Starbucks and Borders — all had signs higher than 14 feet. But he was told those were grandfathered in under a previous version of the zoning ordinance.

“The one local business looking to put their sign above 14 feet is denied,” Sherman complained at the time.

And now? Nothing has changed. Above Panera is a glowing sign, 17 feet off the ground, that beckons the hungry inside for bear claws, granola parfaits and Asiago bagel breakfast sandwiches. Above OGE is a blank gray façade. Oh, and that smaller wood sign crammed under the canopy.

WTF? Was Outdoor Gear Exchange the target of some zoning conspiracy meant to accommodate corporate chains while sticking it to smaller, locally owned retailers?

No. Just the victim of Burlington’s byzantine zoning rules. The particulars get a little technical.

The Panera sign is what in zoning-speak is called “nonconforming” — that is, it is larger and sits higher off the ground than the current zoning ordinance allows. Old Navy’s sign was nonconforming too, but the Panera sign is “less nonconforming” than the one it replaced, in the estimation of city zoning officials. Therefore it could be permitted “as a substantially more compliant sign.”

The OGE sign was apparently even more nonconforming. Or, in the words of planning and zoning director David White, “The wood sign really doesn’t fit the architectural style of the building.”

Sherman thought his rustic sign was cool. “It adds character to the street, which we need,” he said in June. “It’s what defines our downtown as being different than a shopping mall.”

But the Development Review Board disagreed and sent Sherman back to the drawing board to come up with a new design — one with “individual channel letters” that would resemble the Old Navy sign or the Woolworth’s sign that graced the façade years ago.

In September, OGE came back with new sign proposals and won approval. How? By designing something more similar to the Panera sign: individual letters, placed at the same height, with the same “halo lit” backlighting.

“We’re really happy with it. They’re really happy with it. We’re all singing ‘Kumbaya,’” White reports.

With permits in hand, Sherman says local metal artist Kat Clear is working with Twin State Signs to get the new sign fabricated and installed within the next few weeks. Though getting permits was a “slog,” Sherman says he is “quite pleased” with the new look and with his interactions with city zoning officials.

“Regardless of locally owned or not, I think this is a great example of how two businesses were able to learn from each other’s experiences with the city to reach a positive end goal,” Sherman says, adding that the original wooden sign will be hung inside the store.

And did the lack of a visible sign — a store’s biggest advertisement — for six months cost Outdoor Gear Exchange business?

“So far, we have been quite pleased with our foot traffic,” Sherman says, “even with the minimal signage that we have now.”

Oh, and guess where the new sign will be placed?

Above the glass canopy, in the precise spot that planning and zoning previously said was inappropriate. As Sherman said all along: “That façade was actually built for a sign.”

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