On the way back from the dog park yesterday, I drove down Niagara Falls Boulevard, a busy commercial strip north of Buffalo that is the dividing line between the power suburb of Amherst and the more proletarian community of Tonawanda. Outside of a short, tree-lined and brick-paved stretch in Buffalo, Niagara Falls Boulevard was never an attractive street. However, as the sun faded, Niagara Falls Boulevard seemed even uglier than ever. Both the Amherst and Tonawanda sides of the street were lined with freestanding signs bearing electronic message centers. Many were in full animated mode, with constant chasing lights, transitions, cartoons, and the like. Storefront windows were filled with "open" signs with chasing letters and blinking frames, neon beer and lottery signs that flashed on and off, and electronic displays scrolled away in their storefronts. On the Tonawanda side, an abundance of Canadian-style portable signs, with multi-colored fluorescent letters on black backgrounds, only exacerbated the visual blight. The scene resembled Las Vegas Boulevard more so than a poorly planned suburban strip.
Both Amherst and Tonawanda have bans on animated signage. In fact, most suburbs of Buffalo ban them. However, save for the historic villages that surround the city, there are few cities and towns in the Buffalo area whose commercial strips are free of blinking signs and animated electronic message centers. Electronic message centers are prevalent even in Clarence, a town with the region's highest median household income. Electronic message centers seem to be more prevalent in Buffalo and its suburbs than what I saw when I was living in Austin, Texas, in a state that is infamous among planners for its permissive sign and billboard regulations.
In the United States, communities first began to ban animated signs in the 1950s, when neon "spectacular signs" battled for visual dominance on the growing suburban strips of the era, and it was the rare bank sign that didn't rotate. Despite the bans, electronic message centers appeared in the 1990s, followed by three-color displays, multi-color displays, plasma displays, and the reappearance of old-school blinking signs, flauting the sign ordinances of their host communities.
In the 1980s and 1990s, sign and billboard regulation was a hot topic among planners, reflected in numerous articles, PAS memos, books, and conference sessions. Today, except for the occasional seminar on electronic message boards, the days when visual pollution was a prominent part of the planner's agenda seems to be over. Code enforcement departments seem to have written off sign regulations, as evidenced by the growing proliferation of animated and flashing signs in communities that otherwise prohibit or strictly regulate them. Are the days of static signs and commercial corridors that don't resemble the Vegas Strip over? Are sign code issues now passe among planners?