Blurt: Seven Days Staff Blog

NOTE: Blurt has been retired and is no longer updated regularly. For new content, follow these links:

OFF MESSAGE: Vermont News and Politics
BITE CLUB: Food and Drink Blog

« Alice Eats: Smitty's Pub | Main | Women's World Cup is Happening... Without the Vuvuzelas and the Media Hype »

June 28, 2011

Outdoor Gear Exchange Fights City Hall for Sign Placement on Church Street

OGE 2The Outdoor Gear Exchange has moved to a bigger space on Burlington’s Church Street, but the store’s signature handmade sign may get lost in the shuffle.

That’s because the Burlington Department of Planning and Zoning has raised objections to the proposed placement of two signs on the former Old Navy building (pictured in renderings at right and below).

The Outdoor Gear Exchange wants to place its painted wooden sign — which depicts the Green Mountains over the motto "Clothing and Equipment for an Active Lifestyle" — above the glass canopy that fronts Church Street. It wants a second oval sign that says “OGE” on the corner tower where Old Navy’s sign once hung.

OGE 1 But city planners rejected the sign placement because it would exceed the zoning ordinance’s 14-foot height limit and would be out of character with the building’s "Googie" space-age style of architecture.

The Outdoor Gear Exchange has appealed the city’s denial, arguing signs have hung there for more than 50 years and that numerous Church Street businesses — such as Macy’s, Starbucks and Borders — have signs higher than 14 feet. City planners counter that most of those are grandfathered in under previous zoning rules.

OGE co-owner Marc Sherman, who crafted the wood sign himself 16 years ago, admits his sign would exceed the 14-foot height limit, but says he can’t fit that sign or any other "decent-sized sign" under the canopy.

"We could put our words under the glass canopy and that’s about it,” Sherman says, noting that most of the grandfathered stores on Church Street are national chains. “The one local business looking to put their sign above 14 feet is being denied."

OGE Sign In May, the Outdoor Gear Exchange moved a half block from its digs on Cherry Street to the former Old Navy space on Church Street. In doing so, the gear store more than quadrupled its footprint — from 10,000 square feet to 44,000.

In a 20-page staff report, senior planner Scott Gustin lists three reasons for OGE's  signage denial. First, the sign over the front door would be 19 feet above street level and the sign on the tower even higher, well surpassing the 14-foot rule. Second, Gustin writes that the sign over the glass canopy is "inappropriately located and appears as an obvious add-on.

"It is not located within anything that could be considered a sign band or other area appropriate for signs," he writes.

Third, Gustin writes that the proposed location for the wood sign is "inappropriate and insensitive" to the distinctive characteristics of the Googie-style building, which is part of the Church Street National Historic District.

In response, Sherman says the store has had signs on it since being built as a Woolworth's in 1964. "Now zoning is saying that it doesn't look like it belongs there," he says. "It doesn't take anything but a quick visit up to the building to look and see that that façade was actually built for a sign."

As for being inappropriate for the Googie-style building, Sherman argues that one tenet of Googie architecture — a famous example of which is the "Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas Nevada" sign — is "dissonance in building materials," meaning that a wood sign against the OGE's façade could be appropriate.

"I offered to build a neon sign that said 'Welcome to the Fabulous Outdoor Gear Exchange' if that's what they wanted," Sherman quips.

In his report, Gustin acknowledges that other Church Street stores have signs higher than 14 feet but notes that almost all of them were permitted prior to adoption of the Comprehensive Development Ordinance in December 2007, and under the previous Zoning Ordinance.

"Hopefully they're gonna approve it," Sherman says. "When  you read this denial, the only reason you wouldn't allow us to put that sign up there is because you didn't like the sign. I think that it adds character to the street, which we need. It's what defines our downtown as being different from a mall."

The Development Review Board meets to vote on the OGE's appeal this Thursday, June 30, at 5 p.m. in the Planning and Zoning Conference Room at Burlington City Hall.

If the city keeps it up with nonsense like this their will be only one signing hanging over downtown. CLOSED.
The image of Mayor Kiss will be here forever in the ghostown named after him.

At least the OGE sign doesn't have fins.

I'm often astonished at the rigidity of the Church St. Marketplace.

It's a huge zone that consumes a large portion of the middle of downtown which restricts flow through the town, making it difficult for locals to get to and fro.

Meanwhile the rents are exorbitant and the rules stringent making it nearly impossible for the average small business owner to succeed.

Additionally, artists are restricted (though not entirely banned), seating is sparce (unless one has the money to pay for a seat at a cafe), and the police are often aggressive.

I wonder that the powers in charge do not appear to consider the many empty store fronts and why they do not respond with changes in policy etc that could improve the situation.

It would be to everyone's benefit to readdress some of these issues and I don't think that signage is the problem. It's a shopping district - people expect signs.

I'll take a handcrafted, well made sign (however large) over a pre-fabricated corporate logo any day.

That said, I hope OGE wins its battle. Let's see some city support for small business!

This is what happens when citizens ask for more and more govt control and regulation. Citizens of VT you have the government you wanted.

Oy, first of all, where did Dale say that Kiss wrote the regulations? He didn't even say "Kiss"; he said "the city."

Second, why isn't Kiss responsible for what happens in Burlington city government? He may not have written the regs, but he absolutely DOES oversee their enforcement.

I'll bet you blamed George Bush for everything that happened in the entire federal government during the years 2001-09. After all, he was President, right? He was in charge of the entire federal government, right? He was responsible, right? Good heavens, he was a Republican, so of course he was personally responsible for everything bad that happened anywhere in the US while he was President!

But, no, of course Kiss is not responsible for any governmental activity that happens in tiny Burlington! Don't blame Kiss for an underling's actions! Even in this tiny city government! Unless it's something good, -- then of course he can take credit! He regularly takes credit for nonsense like vague and relatively meaningless rankings of Burlington as a livable city in national news media. He gets involved in decisions like whether Burlington should host an air show 2 years from now. But he's completely absolved from any responsibility for regulating business activity within the city????

Nice try.

P&Z issues recommendations, not "denials" as far as I know. The development review board, or whatever they're calling it these days, has the right to adopt, ignore, or partially ignore those recommendations.

Also, two signs right next to each other for the same store would look stupid. Just sayin'.

Just had to take down a post...folks, no personal attacks, please...

And sorry to the person who responded to oy, because deleting the original made your post look kinda awkward.

I missed the deleted personal attack.Tyler could you email me the post?

I hope Seven Days will show consistency and take down the personal attacks against Kiss.

It is becoming increasingly clear that the people in charge of the fair City of Burlington have now inserted their heads so far up their collective asses that they need a window in their stomach to see where they are going! That fact aside, it will not prevent me from shopping in my all time favorite outdoor gear stores in New England.

@ Oy the Oblivious Prog: Where are the "personal" attacks against your friend Kiss, and why isn't the Mayor of Burlington subject to harsh criticism for his acts as mayor?

There's nothing wrong with criticism and even harsh criticism but if posts containing name calling are taken down, why aren't the ones directed at Kiss taken down? I once referred to Shumlin as a liar (that's what progs did before they started using his picture on their campaign literature) and Peter Freyne took it down. He said "unless you have proof" stop throwing around the word "liar". He was right and 7D would do well to follow that example. If they did, most of these comments would go away and people would be forced to give two seconds of thought before they hit the enter key.

In general, Burlington regs on issues like this are too strict and they end up choking the spirit and excitement that can be part of downtown. Burlington has no "grit" in it's urban core and that is largely by design. The "designers" of this vision have been in charge for a long time, too long. City Hall, CEDO, Planning & Zoning, DRB, City Council - they have been trying to cleanse this town of any character for decades. Anything that doesn't fit into their utopian version of a perfect community has little chance of taking root. It's paternalistic and ultimately chokes the city of entrepreneurial-ism.

It is interesting to hear that some people have such negative feelings about Church Street. I've always felt that it's a great place and very vital to Burlington's social and economic prosperity.

Does it restrict the flow of traffic through downtown? A bit. Is it a big deal? No. Just take Main Street.

"the rents are exorbitant ... making it nearly impossible for the average small business owner to succeed."

That's a contradiction. If small businesses couldn't pay the rents, the rents would come down. That’s how the invisible hand of the free market works. Church Street is a good and popular location for a store, so the rents are higher.

"Artists are restricted"

Lots of great art on Church Street, including a lot of good street music. Also, Church Street is a draw for people to travel to Burlington from far away. So people come for Church Street but also end up at other places in Burlington, like the artys south end ... Pine Street, etc.

"seating is sparse (unless one has the money to pay for a seat at a cafe)"

There could be more public benches but sitting in a cafe and ordering a beer ($4.00) or a coffee ($3.00) is hardly expensive (it is a COMMERCIAL zone, after all – support the local businesses!) That said, I've often sat in a restaurant's outdoor seats without purchasing anything. It's rarely a problem.

"the police are often aggressive."

I've been going to Church Street regularly for 30 years. I've never found the police to be anything but respectful. They enforce the laws (no bike riding, no smoking pot.) They have a difficult job of ensuring the safety of a diverse group (tourists, shoppers, local punks, students, homeless people, beggars … ) and they do it well.

“I wonder that the powers in charge do not appear to consider the many empty store fronts and why they do not respond with changes in policy etc that could improve the situation.”

Given the economic times, it’s great to see so many store fronts filled. The fact that the Old Navy building got leased out so quickly after ON left is a testament to how vibrant Church Street is. I’d like to see the empty store fronts filled too. But I still think that, on the whole, Church Street is a very healthy, vibrant place.

Can anyone explain how the proposed signs differ from the ones they're replacing?

And Jimmy, I agree, two signs right next to each other would look stupid. So it's a good thing they wouldn't be next to each other.

"There's nothing wrong with criticism and even harsh criticism but if posts containing name calling are taken down, why aren't the ones directed at Kiss taken down?"

Machado says he doesn't allow attacks by one poster against another poster on this blog, but I'm not aware that posts containing harsh criticism of politicians (such as calling them a "liar") have ever been deleted.

Calling a politician a liar is hardly a personal attack. In fact, liar is the very definition of politician, so it's like calling a politician a politician.

Freyne had his own personal issues that defied reason. You can't judge this blog's take-down policy based on something Freyne did several years ago.

Yeah. I don't treat attacks on another poster and attacks on public figures the same way. I believe I have taken down posts that were attacks on politicians before, but generally only if they're potentially libelous or demonstrably false, not just a harsh opinion. Threatening posts, too. At any rate, I don't think any of the anti-Kiss posts in this thread rise to that standard. As you were...

"So it's a good thing they wouldn't be next to each other."

Look at the second image. They're horizontally maybe 10 feet apart.

More specifically, THOSE two signs look stupid right next to each other. One looks modern, the other looks like it was made by some guy in his garage (probably because it was.) They look like signs for two different stores. Most people would have to read the hokey-doke wooden sign to even know what "OGE" stood for.

Young Tyler, why don't you just sit down, figure out what the new blog commenting policy is - since the old one is obviously obsolete - and post it.

@Bungalow Benchly - that's the rub with these signs. The Old Navy signs were grandfathered under previous regulations. now they're different and putting signs in those same spaces is not allowed. It makes no sense to me that signage in a retail area can't be placed where the buildings were build to accommodate signage - but that's basically what the city is telling OGE. Marc and crew, I sure hope you win this!

I would just like to follow up to Andy's summary of the appeal that we made last week.

There is no bad guy here - least of all Planning and Zoning - Scott's job is to impartially and with no interpretation apply the letter of the ordinance to all applications. There is a process for this. His denial was a matter of course and he documented it well (and advised me in advance that it would be that way). That is EXACTLY what we as city residents pay him to do and he should be applauded for doping it well. He and his staff have been nothing but helpful in directing me through this process - he even called to remind me that the meeting was starting the night I was up for my appeal when I had mis-entered the time in my phone. The appeal of the denial was the next step in the process. I presented my arguments, as represented in Andy's blog, to the Design Review Board in the hopes that they will see fit to offer a variance. They listened, asked good questions, and it's now in their hands.

Hopefully the DRB will deliberate in our favor tomorrow night and see the importance not only to OGE but to the city of putting the name of locally owned businesses as high on our buildings as those of the corporate giants who threaten to take over downtown. Additionally I hope that this could result in reconsidering some of the ordinance for rewrite yet again.

Thank you everyone for your support!


In his report, Gustin acknowledges that other Church Street stores have signs higher than 14 feet but notes that almost all of them were permitted prior to adoption of the Comprehensive Development Ordinance in December 2007, and under the previous Zoning Ordinance.

Which signs were permitted after the ordinance and why?

Marc, perhaps you could pay some of the Jerry Springer Show that hangs out in front of your store on Church Street to hold the sign up at eye level? Mr Gustin, would that be low enough for you?

Marc, I was really pretty much nodding in agreement with your mostly reasonable posting. But when you got to the "corporate giants" bit, I felt rather disappointed.

Not to belabor the point, but without at least some national chains, there wouldn't be a Church Street. What's more, some of them do a damn good job, in large measure because they have excellent staff. Who, you know, live in the area.

The Gear Exchange is great, and I buy there when I can. But -- and this is just an example -- because I have tragic (big, flat) feet, you seldom have anything (or much) in my size. I understand why (from your business side of things). But I also need shoes. And I don't feel guilty about buying them elsewhere.


Boooo Burlington Sign Nazis. First of all the whole Googie building doesn't fit in. There is absolutely no sign uniformity on Church St anyway. The mountain sign IS their brand. I have been through this before.

The city is not enforcing a code, hey are legislating taste. And the taste is that of one or two people who just like to make rules to back their flavor preference.

Scott Gustin wrote a 20 page staff report about it?? This man has a problem

LPR - fair enough - There is a place for those shops too, but they do risk homogonizing everything they touch. I just drove through the lowlands of South Carolina saw one chain after another - it did not inspire me to shop even though those businesses do support local folks through jobs.

As for your shoes - I know it's not as convenient, but we will always special order anything if it's available from one of our manufacturers and no one should feel guilty for shopping where they need to in order to get what they need. We have strived to build our business based on providing the goods people want at national prices - not on local support subsidy.

Anyway - thanks for your support, Happy fourth!

Oh for Pete's sake. Anyone still wonder why VT is known as a business unfriendly place....

Next thing you know they will be passing ordinances against peeing in City Park

The time to object was when they proposed the ordinance...not now...why does the Outdoor Gear Exchange consider themselves to be above the law...or ordinance in this case...just more privileged arrogance and if that's the case I wouldn't want to shop there!

You mean they should have read through and interpreted the zoning ordinance that cost half a million dollars and took several years to write. The one that no one has any idea what is says?

I agree, the OGE is obligated to follow the law, no matter how utterly stupid it is.

i'm so tired of tales of burlington regulations preventing local businesses from advertising their presence in an obviously commercial location (we're not talking billboard, here), zoning boards nit-picking about the design of alternative energy projects (fins vs no fins on a wind turbine), the color or composition of roofing materials (metal vs slate vs shingle), etc. it's a wonder that anyone still wants to do anything to keep burlington moving forward.

and, yes, if there aren't regulations against peeing in city hall park, there ought to be. and they ought to be enforced.

The comments to this entry are closed.

Stuck in VT (VIDEOS)

Solid State (Music)

Mistress Maeve (Sex)

All Rights Reserved © Da Capo Publishing Inc. 1995-2012 | PO Box 1164, Burlington, VT 05402-1164 | 802-864-5684