The Evanston Land Use Commission on Wednesday, Nov. 9, voted 6-1 to recommend variances allowing Northbrook-based UL Solutions (previously Underwriters Laboratories) to put lighted signs atop a proposed headquarters for two spun-off organizations.
UL Standards and Engagement (ULSE) and UL Research Institute (ULRI) are looking into leasing the top four floors of 1603 Orrington Ave., but part of that relocation hinges on whether ULSE and ULRI can hang illuminated signs at the top of the north and south faces of the 20-story building.
While many welcome such high-profile firms in downtown Evanston, such prominent signs are unprecedented for Evanston when firms are not the sole tenants of a building, and seems to conflict with the city’s 2008 comprehensive plan, which tried to guard against an overly commercial feel downtown.
Steve Degodny, vice president of leasing for Golub & Co., which owns the building, said 1603 Orrington Ave. is 33% vacant, with several more leases coming up for renewal in the next few years. As such, he maintained, allowing the signs was vital.
Corporate executives argued that the signs were a way for ULSE and ULRI to reinforce both their branding and a figurative partnership between them and the city.
“We are good corporate citizens and we want to be your partner,” said Charlotte Farmer, senior vice president and chief operational officer of ULRI, adding “this signage is crucial to shine a light on our brand, as well as what our brand embodies.”
City staff reported that they had received 27 messages from neighboring residents in support of the proposal and 10 messages against.
While some commissioners were occasionally skeptical of the importance corporate officials were attaching to the signage, they were generally supportive and proved willing to make an exception for the firms. Several praised the 200-square-foot logo as being sufficiently understated so as to not overwhelm its surroundings.
Commissioner George Halik said, “Standards were developed in 2008, but in 2022, we’re in a different world.”
Commissioner Kristine Westerberg was the only no vote. While she said she would welcome the firms, she said, “My concern is with the spirit of the comprehensive plan. … The city needs to think about what it wants to set in terms of precedent. This is a pretty big request.”
But commission Chair Matt Rodgers was doubtful the city would face many similar requests in the immediate future. “When we have another 280-foot building with signs, then we have a precedent,” he said.
The principals will have to meet several stipulations, among them to collaborate with Bird-Friendly Evanston; have the signs be both dimmable and turned off at 11 p.m.; agree to remove the signs if ULSE and ULRI were to leave the building; no additional tall signs on the property; and a third-party certification of the mounting and installation of the signs.
The sign proposal now will go before City Council, which has the final say.