Sign, sign, everywhere a sign
Blockin' out the scenery, breakin' my mind
Do this, don't do that, can't you read the sign
— Five Man Electrical Band
Complaints About Signs Spike, but Who Is Behind Them?
by Karen Zraick
The calls to 311 started to pick up steam about a year ago.
They were complaints about an arcane New York City statute requiring special permits for businesses to hang signs or awnings larger than six square feet.
The caller — or callers — was clearly targeting certain commercial strips, making complaints in batches, as on Nov. 26, when calls came in reporting 25 businesses along a two-block stretch of Eighth Avenue in Sunset Park, Brooklyn. The businesses did not have a license for their signs, the complaints said.
But it wasn’t just a couple of days of calls, city data shows. In Brooklyn, the hardest-hit borough, 234 calls about illegal signage were made to New York City’s help line in November — compared with 23 the same month last year. And the calls are still coming in.
“I feel they came after us,” said Waddah Mubarz, a travel agent with offices in Bay Ridge and near Atlantic Terminal in Brooklyn, and on White Plains Road in the Bronx. He received violations in all three places.
“It’s so expensive,” he groaned. “But we have to pay it.”
The law about permits is meant to ensure signs are properly installed, so that one doesn’t, say, suddenly fall off and hit someone on the head. Once a complaint to 311 about unlicensed signs or awning is filed, the city is required to investigate and may issue violations that carry a minimum fine of $6,000. Replacing a sign can cost thousands more.
Many store owners have pre-emptively taken their signs down out of fear of being reported.
The missing signs are unmissable. Local joints are left to advertise with concrete bald spots, patchy from where brackets were hastily torn down. Uncovered fluorescent tubes that once gently backlit a deli’s name glare at neighbors passing by.
Could it be someone who stood to gain, like a sign hanger? Maybe someone with a vendetta? A local busybody, incensed about infractions against the municipal code? Or could it be real estate developers looking to push tenants out?
Some Chinese and Yemeni store owners felt their shops were being targeted and wondered if it was because of the foreign languages on their signs. (In 2011, talk of a City Council bill mandating that store signs be mostly in English spurred a controversy and highlighted discontent among some about the proliferation of foreign-language signs.)
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Whatever the motive behind the calls, businesses that have received violations and some local officials are asking why the city is allowing 311 to be used like a weapon against mom-and-pop shops.
“Seems there may be some sign companies looking for extra business behind this campaign as well. Sort of like the guy who owns the flat tire place that goes around slashing everyone’s tires or the glass repair place that goes around breaking car windows to ‘create’ new business,” Councilman Justin Brannan wrote in a Nov. 27 Facebook post that garnered hundreds of comments.
“People are afraid,” said Zaid Nagi, vice president of the Yemeni American Merchants Association, who owns three cellphone businesses (with signs still hanging) in the Bronx. “They are asking, why is New York City pushing the little guy out?”
When Jamil Essa took over a used car dealership on the eastern border of Sunset Park 11 years ago, he simply slapped the name of his dealership, Luxury 1 Auto Sales, onto the existing sign, which he said was erected decades earlier.
No one ever mentioned it was a problem. Then all of a sudden, he said, he got a visit from the Department of Buildings and a citation for an unlicensed sign that will result in a $6,000 fine.
“You didn’t say nothing in 40 years and now you’re coming to punish people,” he lamented.
Laws requiring permits for storefront signs have been on the books since 1968, said Andrew Rudansky, a spokesman for the Department of Buildings. They are necessary to ensure that the signs will not fall, block a fire escape or present some other safety hazard, he said. (In July, a sign fell off a dentist’s office in Bay Ridge and left two women with minor injuries.) And the law requires the agency to check out any complaint about them, he said.
“We are not targeting businesses around the city for sign-enforcement efforts; rather, our inspectors typically investigate sign complaints in a neighborhood when they are in the area for other matters,” Mr. Rudansky said in a statement.
The agency maintains that it cannot ignore 311 complaints for potentially illegal or unsafe activity because of what someone might think a 311 caller’s motive is, nor should it try. It’s important to keep the information anonymous so that tenants and others can report issues without fear of reprisal, officials say.
But City Council members say the city should enact a moratorium on violations regarding signs and awnings and waive fees and penalties as it conducts outreach and education among merchants about the requirements.
Brooklyn accounted for more than half of the approximately 1,900 total complaints about signs to 311 so far this year, more than double the usual number. The Sunset Park neighborhood was hardest hit, and Bay Ridge and Bensonhurst — as well as Cypress Hills and East New York — also received many complaints.
In Queens, the complaints have more than doubled since the previous year, and there was a smaller increase in the Bronx. The number of complaints in Staten Island and Manhattan has been consistent with last year.
“The Department of Buildings has to hit the pause button,” said Mr. Brannan, who represents the area around Bay Ridge. His wife’s small business received a sign complaint after he spoke out about the issue, and he believes a political opponent was behind the call. He was among the officials and merchants who held a rally about the issue at City Hall on Wednesday.
Councilman Rafael Espinal, who represents Cypress Hills and surrounding areas, introduced a bill this year calling for a moratorium after businesses in his district received a wave of sign violations. The legislation has new momentum and will most likely go to a vote on Dec. 20, his office said.
At SAS Italian Records in Bensonhurt, a local fixture selling music and Italian trinkets, Silvana Conte, 62, said she had heard “a million different things” about the fines from fellow business owners, including rumors that the city was going to start requiring costly annual permits for signs. (The city denies this.)
An adult day care center across the street had taken its awning down, and another neighbor had hired an architect.
“I wish the city would try and help out the small-business owners,” Ms. Conte said. “It’s just impossible to survive.”
Down the street, Alexandr Choklin, 66, an assistant in a Chinese acupuncture and herb shop, shook his head when he was asked about its missing awning. It had once advertised the business’s services in English, Chinese and Russian.
“We’re a small business,” he said. “We cannot afford a $6,000 fine.”
After hearing about fines from other businesses, Mr. Choklin asked his son to look up the regulations online. When it was unclear whether they might get a grace period to make sure the paperwork was in order, they decided to take the sign down.
“Who supports the city? Small businesses,” Mr. Choklin said. “When we’re gone, what is the city going to do?”
Jennifer Collins, 44, a receptionist from Bay Ridge who had stopped in at SAS, asked a more immediate question: “How are you going to find the stores if they don’t have a sign up?”