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Outdoor Gear Exchange Fights City Hall for Sign Placement on Church Street 

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The Outdoor Gear Exchange has moved to a bigger space on Burlington’s Church Street, but the store’s signature handmade sign may get lost in the shuffle.

That’s because the Burlington Department of Planning and Zoning has raised objections to the proposed placement of two signs on the former Old Navy building (pictured in renderings at right and below).

The Outdoor Gear Exchange wants to place its painted wooden sign — which depicts the Green Mountains over the motto "Clothing and Equipment for an Active Lifestyle" — above the glass canopy that fronts Church Street. It wants a second oval sign that says “OGE” on the corner tower where Old Navy’s sign once hung.

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But city planners rejected the sign placement because it would exceed the zoning ordinance’s 14-foot height limit and would be out of character with the building’s "Googie" space-age style of architecture.

The Outdoor Gear Exchange has appealed the city’s denial, arguing signs have hung there for more than 50 years and that numerous Church Street businesses — such as Macy’s, Starbucks and Borders — have signs higher than 14 feet. City planners counter that most of those are grandfathered in under previous zoning rules.

OGE co-owner Marc Sherman, who crafted the wood sign himself 16 years ago, admits his sign would exceed the 14-foot height limit, but says he can’t fit that sign or any other "decent-sized sign" under the canopy.

"We could put our words under the glass canopy and that’s about it,” Sherman says, noting that most of the grandfathered stores on Church Street are national chains. “The one local business looking to put their sign above 14 feet is being denied."

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In May, the Outdoor Gear Exchange moved a half block from its digs on Cherry Street to the former Old Navy space on Church Street. In doing so, the gear store more than quadrupled its footprint — from 10,000 square feet to 44,000.

In a 20-page staff report, senior planner Scott Gustin lists three reasons for OGE's  signage denial. First, the sign over the front door would be 19 feet above street level and the sign on the tower even higher, well surpassing the 14-foot rule. Second, Gustin writes that the sign over the glass canopy is "inappropriately located and appears as an obvious add-on.

"It is not located within anything that could be considered a sign band or other area appropriate for signs," he writes.

Third, Gustin writes that the proposed location for the wood sign is "inappropriate and insensitive" to the distinctive characteristics of the Googie-style building, which is part of the Church Street National Historic District.

In response, Sherman says the store has had signs on it since being built as a Woolworth's in 1964. "Now zoning is saying that it doesn't look like it belongs there," he says. "It doesn't take anything but a quick visit up to the building to look and see that that façade was actually built for a sign."

As for being inappropriate for the Googie-style building, Sherman argues that one tenet of Googie architecture — a famous example of which is the "Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas Nevada" sign — is "dissonance in building materials," meaning that a wood sign against the OGE's façade could be appropriate.

"I offered to build a neon sign that said 'Welcome to the Fabulous Outdoor Gear Exchange' if that's what they wanted," Sherman quips.

In his report, Gustin acknowledges that other Church Street stores have signs higher than 14 feet but notes that almost all of them were permitted prior to adoption of the Comprehensive Development Ordinance in December 2007, and under the previous Zoning Ordinance.

"Hopefully they're gonna approve it," Sherman says. "When  you read this denial, the only reason you wouldn't allow us to put that sign up there is because you didn't like the sign. I think that it adds character to the street, which we need. It's what defines our downtown as being different from a mall."

The Development Review Board meets to vote on the OGE's appeal this Thursday, June 30, at 5 p.m. in the Planning and Zoning Conference Room at Burlington City Hall.

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Andy Bromage

Andy Bromage

Andy Bromage was a Seven Days staff writer from 2009-2012, and the news editor from 2012-2013.

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