Pop quiz time: You're driving south on Highway 880 near Westfield Valley Fair Shopping Mall. As Highway 280 approaches, you see an LED sign the size of a three-car garage near the top of a 60-foot tower. Do you:
A) Marvel at the colors while your spouse yells at you to watch the road.
B) Shrug. But remind yourself to get to the Cheesecake Factory soon.
C) Call Councilman Pierluigi Oliverio to complain about the vapid look of Gap models on the sign.
Admittedly, the choices are skewed. The big bright sign, however, is a likelihood. And while it would not be the first LED sign at a San Jose shopping center -- a smaller one was built recently at the @First Shopping Center off Highway 237 -- the Valley Fair sign promises to be the most visible and controversial.
After years of planning, the shopping center is asking Planning Director Joe Horwedel for a permit to erect a double-sided super-bright sign. It will be 101/2 feet tall and 36 feet wide.
The reason? Please. It's advertising, next to a busy freeway. With the images set to change periodically, it's like pulling a viewer into a high-def telecast.
Two years ago, the San Jose City Council changed its policy to allow precisely such "freeway signs.'' The city has its own interest: More customers mean more sales tax for the city.
"As you drive around any cities in California, you see lots of enticement to get off the freeway and shop,'' says Councilman Pete Constant, the council's most stalwart defender of big signs. "You get to San Jose and there's this dearth of signs. We need to be able to give our businesses that tool so that people know they're there.''
That doesn't mean that the big sign is without opponents. In the nearby Cory School neighborhood, one longtime resident, Frank Wolsfeld, has circulated a petition against the sign's placement that he says has already gathered 260 signatures.
Wolsfeld's beef centers on safety. He says southbound drivers who use the Bascom Avenue onramp to get onto 880 already struggle to move to the left to avoid the Valley Fair traffic. "To distract drivers right at that critical point is a terrible idea,'' he told me.
Wolsfeld suggests that the shopping center move the tower 600 or 700 feet southward from its planned location near Forest Avenue and 880, a move that would also spare Cory residents from its glare.
But a two-story garage would interfere with that placement. And defenders of big signs say there's no evidence that bright LED screens cause traffic accidents. (LED stands for "light-emitting diode.")
"I haven't seen any studies that show increased crashes,'' says Constant, a former cop. "We have these kind of signs right on 101 at Great America. Residents and drivers are used to seeing these things."'
Westfield officials have said the new sign will not be as bright as the big LED screen next to Highway 101 at the Redwood City-San Carlos border. The Valley Fair sign does, however, appear to have higher resolution than the smaller electronic sign outside HP Pavilion. Like all new LED signs in San Jose, it can be dimmed at night.
For once, I don't have a strong point of view on this one. I do think, however, that the debate says something about changing aesthetics in San Jose -- and about the power of economics and technology to alter our thinking.
"These big tall signs are invariably ugly and add clutter to a commercial area,'' says former Planning Director Gary Schoennauer. "You have to ask why. Valley Fair is one of the most successful shopping centers in the country with the current signage."
The opposite argument is that a commercial area is designed to be vibrant, not beautiful. In tougher economic times, the city is more willing to bend on behalf of commerce.
Is Westfield's big bright sign good or bad? I'd be interested in knowing what you think. You can go online at www.mercurynews.com/scott-herhold to vote.
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