There is a proposal pending to add an illuminated Skydeck sign at the top of 2150 Shattuck Ave. Not everyone is happy about the idea. Rendering: Ad Art

Update: The illuminated lighting will go forward.  The Design Review Committee voted 4 to 1 on Jan. 18 to reject Steve Finacom’s appeal.

Original story: The top of the tower at 2150 Shattuck Ave. has been branded since the 1990s, first with Powerbar, the name of the energy bar company, and then Chase, the name of a bank.

Now a new group wants to put up an illuminated sign that says Skydeck, referring to the UC Berkeley incubator space that occupies the building’s penthouse. But a long-time preservationist is fighting the plan because he believes the sign is prohibited under Berkeley law. Plus, he is concerned that the sign might lead others – including, potentially, President-elect Donald Trump – to advertise their businesses on new towers that are about to be built in Berkeley.

“The skyline of Downtown could be festooned with lighted advertising signs that will be as prominent on the Berkeley skyline as the Campanile,” Steve Finacom wrote in an article in the Daily Planet.

Finacom is appealing a city staff decision to permit the Skydeck sign. The Design Review Committee is scheduled to discuss the appeal next Thursday, Jan. 19.

Ad Art submitted a proposal in September asking to put up two Skydeck signs on a rooftop enclosure that holds the building’s mechanical and electrical equipment. There would be one sign on the south side of the building with letters four feet high, and one on the east side of the building with letters three feet high, according to staff reports. The signs would either be neon or LED.

City staff approved the signage on Nov. 1, with certain restrictions. The signs had to have dimmers, they had to be turned off from midnight to 6 a.m., and staff would be able to revisit the project after six months.

The Skydeck sign as it would be seen in the daytime. Rendering: Ad Art

City staff concluded that the proposed signs were “consistent with Title 20 of the Berkeley Municipal Code (signs) and the Downtown Berkeley guidelines as overall building signage in terms of size, the number of signs allowed, and illumination.”

Finacom has argued that staff is ignoring other provisions, such as the requirement that signs on the upper façade of a building be building identification signs only. Skydeck is a tenant of 2150 Shattuck Ave., and is not the name of the building so it should not be allowed to have its name on the top, he said.

In addition, Berkeley law requires signs to be on the façades of buildings, not their roofs, Finacom wrote in his appeal. The Skydeck sign would be attached to a metal casing surrounding the equipment on the roof, not the façade, he said.

Moreover, the Downtown Berkeley Design Guidelines discourage the use of company names on taller buildings, said Finacom, who included this graph from the guidelines in his appeal:

“Architecture, not advertising, should define the upper elevations of buildings, especially those visible from beyond the Downtown. Commercial signage, advertising signage (including emblems or logos) or building name signage should be avoided on adjacent to the roofs of buildings downtown.”

Finacom said if the Skydeck sign is approved, what is there to prevent someone like Donald Trump from coming in and putting his name on one of the two 180-feet buildings that the City Council recently approved?

“Under the current signage interpretations of staff, Berkeley would have no recourse but to allow a big, illuminated sign across the top of the building reading “TRUMP TOWER – BERKELEY,” Finacom wrote.

(There is no indication that Trump is interested in doing this.)

Steven Donaldson, a marketing consultant who has been volunteering his time the last seven months to get the sign authorized, said that SkyDeck is not a commercial business but a non-profit entity run by UC.

“The intent of this sign is to brand Berkeley as a center of innovation – not commercially advertise for a for-profit business, this is a very, very different use than the Chase sign, Power Bar sign or the current WeWork sign,” Donaldson said in an email.

Donaldson also said that the letters would be made up on LED lights, not neon, although that information is not included in the city staff reports.

In response to Finacom’s comments, city staff is now recommending that the illuminated signs be turned off at 11 p.m. every night rather than midnight. But staff argues that the proposed signage is compliant with Berkeley law and should be approved. Both the Powerbar and Chase signs were located at the rooftop level, and not on the façade, according to a staff report. And the design guidelines presented in the Downtown Berkeley Design Guidelines were never incorporated into Berkeley’s City Sign Ordinance and do not apply, according to the report.

Read the sign proposal and Steve Finacom’s appeal.

Editors’ note: This story was updated at 10:15 p.m. to add Donaldson’s comments. The headline was also changed to say “illuminated signs,” rather than “neon sign.” 

Frances Dinkelspiel, Berkeleyside and CItyside co-founder, is a journalist and author. Her first book, Towers of Gold: How One Jewish Immigrant Named Isaias Hellman Created California, published in November...