Events in New York City over the past few years have heightened the truism that we never know what we’ve got until it’s taken away. As the result of a sign code requirement created by the City of New York in 1968 – but largely unenforced until recent years – many local merchants were forced to remove longstanding signs and signage awnings. Besides losing their investments in the signs themselves and sacrificing the even greater value of their business identities, these storekeepers were forced to absorb the cost of new signage conforming to the little-known, 50-year-old ordinance.
This regulation required special permits for storefront signs and awnings larger than 6 sq. ft. And because of the maximum fine for each non-conforming sign ($6,000), when the city began to enforce the rule – primarily over the past two years – many merchants opted to avoid potential fines by removing their existing signs. A number of these businesses operated without signage or with only small, ineffective signs.
The genesis of this enforcement surge is unknown because it resulted from an unusual increase in complaints received by the New York City Department of Buildings concerning non-conforming signs. During 2018, the City of New York received hundreds of complaints about existing signs in the Brooklyn and Queens districts – more than double the amount of complaints obtained during 2017. Because complaints about city code violations are recorded anonymously, it’s uncertain whether they are being filed by parties with competitive or other interests.
Merchants in these districts were understandably mortified by the city’s shift in enforcement, feeling they were unfairly targeted by a regulation that they never knew existed and hadn’t been widely enforced in the past. But according to Andrew Rudansky of the New York City Department of Buildings, the city wasn’t targeting businesses in particular districts, but responding to specific complaints.
Members of the local business community responded by organizing a rally at New York City Hall in December, which was attended by politicians representing the affected districts. In response to the concerns of these business owners, Councilman Rafael Espinal introduced a bill calling for a moratorium on sign violation fines until the city has revisited the troublesome sign code regulation. Fortunately, this local activism succeeded when Espinal and Mayor Bill de Blasio reached an agreement, adopting a new Awnings Act. The act effectively waives all related fees and fines for small business owners while expanding the number of contractors licensed by the city to furnish and install outdoor signs.
Local businesses such as the Superior Late Nite Deli removed their signs and awnings to avoid being fined by the city.
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