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Who Cares About a Pepsi Sign in Birmingham?

  |   By: Dave Folk     |   Opinion

“There are so many problems with Birmingham, who cares about a sign?”

As quickly as indignation manifested regarding the humongous Pepsi sign erected in downtown Birmingham came the excuses. “This is private matter, the city isn’t involved.” Citizens of Birmingham and surrounding areas quickly invented their excuses why the Pepsi sign isn’t a big deal. “If you hate it so much use your money to put something else up there.”

These people did what the people of Birmingham do so well, they made excuses why this city isn’t better. Excuses why Birmingham’s government doesn’t work for its citizens. Excuses why we can tolerate mediocrity. We deserve to fail as a city, because we do nothing to demand more from ourselves and those around us.

The Pepsi sign controversy boils down to the people of this city challenging a local business to do better. You can call the sign a thousand derivatives of ugly, but that masks what it truly is: disappointing. All that prime square footage went to waste.

It could have been a locally designed “It’s nice to have you in Birmingham,” or any other iteration, that beamed with civic pride. Buffalo Rock could have commissioned beautiful art to adorn the tower that would have been a public relations windfall. It would have set them above every company in this city. Instead, we got a hideous blight that violates city code.

Pepsi’s sign atop the Two-North Twentieth building should matter to the average citizen for a number of reasons, paramount amongst them that the city has yet to enforce the zoning codes that the sign violated. In my post last week, I detailed what violations occurred, but the main gist of it is that the city has ordinances in place to prevent large product advertisements from obstructing the skyline and this sign violates just about every one of them. It’s too big, it’s on top of a building and it exists in a district that requires special aesthetic consideration.

Those 10,000 plus square feet are a matter of public concern because their appropriation breaks the law. Had Buffalo Rock gotten the approval of the Birmingham Design Review Committee for their design this would be a moot point, but they didn’t get a permit at all. In fact, the DRC had rejected previous iterations of the sign before the corporation bypassed the process.

A precedent has been set in Birmingham that companies don’t need to follow the guidelines set forth by the elected officials. So far, members of the city council have stated that while they don’t agree with the sign there is nothing they can do about it. What power does our local government now hold if the local laws they maintain can be selectively followed?

People will tell you that Birmingham has bigger problems, and it does. This is a trivial fight but it is a fight that has to be won. If the citizens of this city can’t get their elected officials to do something as simple as enforce the laws in place, then how can we hope to have any luck tackling the real issues we have. What hope do we have lowering crime, creating a sustainable future and attracting more people to Birmingham if we can’t even get businesses to follow simple zoning ordinances.

If we don’t demand better from Buffalo Rock and the city council they will have no obligation to give us anything more than mediocrity. The great sign debate presents an opportunity for us to accomplish something in Birmingham that both enforces the law and promotes civic pride. We can take that momentum on to the bigger problems this city suffers from, or we could say, “It’s just a sign.”

Follow Dave on Twitter at @davefolk

Dave Folk is a yankee transplant living in Birmingham, Alabama.