Wednesday, September 3, 2008

The Lessons of Unisys


Images: phillyskyline.com

Prior to Philadelphia’s current mayoral administration, the City’s Commerce Department attracted Unisys to locate its offices downtown. While the company would leave most of its staff in its suburban offices, it would call the downtown offices in the city’s landmark Two Liberty Place its headquarters, and would lease about 7% of the building.

Part of the City’s benefits package to induce Unisys to move downtown included permission to erect a permanent sign on the tower that could be seen on the skyline. Just last week, however, the City’s Zoning Board of Adjustment rejected Unisys’s application for a zoning variance for the sign, leaving the company threatening to break its lease or sublet the space, and the City rushing to find a way to keep Unisys happy.

The fact is, the Zoning Board did what it is supposed to do. Its role is to decide whether there is undue hardship that would warrant a variance from the Zoning Code. In this case Unisys and its lawyers could not make a compelling case for hardship. It was, admittedly, a practically impossible case to make.

Critics of the decision have argued that plenty of other companies already have signs just like the one Unisys is proposing. However, this is far from true. The proposed Unisys sign would have differed dramatically from any existing, permanent sign in Philadelphia. All existing corporate signage is either on the very top or on the bottom of the structure. The Unisys sign would have perched about three-quarters-of-the-way up the tower.

Additionally, All of the existing, top-of-building signs represent companies that either own the building or are its major tenant. Unisys, in contrast, leased less than 10% of the space in Two Liberty Place. Cigna leases many more floors of the same building, and does not have an exterior sign.

If every company that leases less than 10% of an office tower were permitted to hang a sign part-way up the building’s tower… well, just close your eyes and imagine.

I have never seen anything like this proposed Unisys sign, and for good reason. Other cities recognize that it is an inappropriate type of sign that compromises the integrity of its skyline, and opens the floodgates for other corporate tenants to demand a similar sign. Even in sign-cluttered areas like The Strip in Las Vegas and Times Square in New York, the signage is all oriented toward the street level. All of the top-of-building signs in these cities are at the very top, not perched in the middle of a skyscraper.

The bottom line is that the Unisys sign would have set a dangerous precedent – not just for Philadelphia, but for urban America.

This brings us to another point: The City’s Commerce Department does not have the authority to give companies a variance from the Zoning Code; only the Zoning Board of Adjustment can do that. In essence, the Commerce Department wooed a company by promising something it could not deliver. By so-doing it pitted itself against other public bodies, such as the Zoning Board, the Planning Commission, and the Art Commission, creating conflict and tension within City Hall.

Businesses like nothing more than consistency – clear rules that are sure to be followed. By the Commerce Department promising something it could not deliver, it subjected Unisys to a lengthy and uncertain fate of lobbying the other City agencies necessary to give it the green light. This is not consistency. This is the kind of uncertain, frustrating, and expensive deal-making that scares businesses away.

If Philadelphia is serious about wanting to attract corporations, then this sign is a distraction from the real issue. The City needs to establish clear rules, and every City agency and department needs to agree to stick to those rules. City Hall should act with one, harmonious voice when dealing with businesses and developers.

An editorial in The Philadelphia Inquirer added to this point, “hopefully, [Mayor] Nutter and other city leaders will realize from this episode that Philadelphia needs to do much more to attract and retain businesses beyond engaging them in sign squabbles. That includes reducing taxes, streamlining bureaucratic red tape, improving the quality of the work force, and developing enhanced marketing.”

I am a great supporter of Philadelphia’s Mayor Nutter and his Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development Andy Altman. Admittedly, Altman came into a difficult position, trying to bring coordination and reform to a city mired deep in an attitude that the rules were meant to be broken. I hope that this situation brings a happy resolution, with Unisys staying in town, and the City continuing to shift the way it does business – in time becoming more consistent and competitive.

In light of the circumstances, if Unisys seeks innovative ways to connect its image with our great city, I second a suggestion from Inga Saffron’s blog: “If they can't put their logo on a prestigious Philadelphia landmark, put the prestigious Philadelphia landmark on their logo. Redesign the Unisys signature to incorporate the outline of Liberty Two. Everyone wins!”

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