Rebound: District Detroit Parking Signage

Michigan-based companies produce parking signage for District Detroit.
Detroit is still recovering from the Great Recession.

My hometown, Cincinnati, has recently seen its downtown transformed from a block-after-block concrete dust bowl to a vibrant, emerging locale that draws young professionals. When attending college or pro sporting events in downtown Cincinnati as a kid, my family would simply drive to the parking garage, attend the game – and then head home post-game. Now, there are bars, restaurants, parks, museums and other spectacles well within walking distance of the riverfront stadia.

It’s part of a rebound from the effects of the US’ recent economic downturn, which crippled urban cores across the country.

Signage plays a key role in this restoration process; if people haven’t been downtown in years, how can they be expected to find their way around? With economies again growing in many cities and towns, the next step is an aesthetic rebound – making a city attractive to facilitate growth. Enter environmental graphics and wayfinding signage.


There was perhaps no more public face of the Great Recession than Detroit, a once-prosperous metropolis. Per The Guardian, Detroit’s median income and rate of home ownership were the highest of any major American city in the 1950’s, two cheery statistics fueled by the Motor City’s reliance on jobs created by a trio of automotive powerhouses: Ford, General Motors and Chrysler.

A half-century later, Detroit collapsed. In June 2009, the city’s unemployment rate reached a staggering 28.4%. By the end of 2009, Detroit was $300M in debt, and General Motors and Chrysler had been bailed out by the US government. In July 2013, Detroit became the largest US city to file for Chapter 9 bankruptcy protection.

But slowly, Detroit is climbing out of the dark. Per the US Department of Labor, the city’s 7.5% unemployment rate last May was its lowest since 2000. An influx of private investment, particularly from billionaire Detroit natives Dan Gilbert and Mike Illitch (who passed away in February) bolstered this recovery.

One of the crown jewels of downtown Detroit’s recovery is District Detroit, a 50-block, mixed-use development that will ultimately be home to businesses, event destinations, parks, restaurants, theaters and the city’s four major professional sports franchises, with the NBA’s Pistons and NHL’s Red Wings slated to move into the brand-new Little Caesar’s Arena this fall, joining the MLB’s Tigers and NFL’s Lions as downtown tenants. And with thousands of people set to swoop into Detroit on a regular basis, parking space and its accompanying signage play a vital role in keeping the newcomers informed.


About a year ago, Chuck Veres, principal of Veres Environmental Graphics and Signs (VEGAS; Commerce, MI) was approached by Richard Nicolson, the creative director of Nicolson Associates (Pontiac, MI), an environmental graphic design consultancy. Nicolson wanted to pick Veres’ brain about a District Detroit project owned by Olympia Development of Michigan (funded by the Illitch family). Nicolson was looking for assistance on how to achieve a blackened steel look for 36 signs that would constitute the main signage for all the parking decks and lots throughout District Detroit. Olympia eventually hired VEGAS later in the project after VEGAS’ initial consultation with Nicolson and Olympia. The firm acts as consultant/construction manager to the project, working intimately with all levels (design, fabrication, installation) of the project.

“We’re very good at value engineering and finding ways to give the client the look they want while keeping the designers happy,” Veres said, “and at the same time, we keep the projects within budget.”

As for the blackened steel issue, that hurdle was cleared by avoiding steel altogether. “The problem with steel is, it rusts,” Veres said. “We worked really hard to find a paint finish that would replicate [the look of steel] and still allow us to use aluminum.”

Jonathan Townsend, who works in project management and senior sales for VEGAS, collaborated with Signs by Crannie (Flint, MI) and a handful of vendors to develop what Townsend referred to as a “translucent coating on top of aluminum” finish to achieve the blackened steel look. “We put different amounts of paint on top of the aluminum base and in different areas, with the translucency of that color; it’s basically a dark, dark gray,” Townsend said. “In some spots it looks silvery and in other parts it’s fairly dark, so it simulates the look of a raw piece of blackened steel.”

Signs by Crannie acted as the primary fabricator for the project. “We used a variety of aluminum, everything from flat sheet to angled stock to SignComp aluminum extrusion cabinets and welded aluminum faces,” said Daniel Crannie, the company’s president.

Another distinctive component of the parking signage – which was fabricated in three sizes (47, 49 and 55 in.) – is each sign’s high-resolution LCD monitor, which can display an assortment of imagery, namely lot availability and rates, as well as news, promotional material, sports scores and video. Signs by Crannie handled the fabrication – including cooling fans to disperse heat – while Townsend worked on-site to oversee the electrical components.

“There was a lot of upfront work dealing with infrastructure, the power we needed, where the data was coming from and how the monitor will network with the parking system and the other informational systems that they wanted to use,” Townsend said.

Installation was slated for the end of August, with the new parking signage expected to go live in early September. Veres, who is from Toledo, OH, an hour south of Detroit, Crannie (a Flint native)and Townsend (grew up just south of Detroit) each took special pride in the project.

“It’s fantastic to be a small bit player in a much bigger scope and to see Detroit coming alive again,” Veres said.


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