Sign points to Emanuel, Trump faceoff

Donald Trump and Mayor Rahm Emanuel are butting heads over a big sign at the top of the city's Trump Tower. (Posted June 12, 2014)

The last letter in the huge "TRUMP" sign that Donald Trump is putting on his Chicago skyscraper has yet to be installed, but Mayor Rahm Emanuel is ready to pass judgment.

Thumbs down.

"The mayor thinks the sign is awful," Bill McCaffrey, a mayoral spokesman, told the Tribune on Wednesday. "It's in very poor taste and scars what is otherwise an architecturally accomplished building."

The city is exploring options that could lead Trump to remove the sign, according to McCaffrey, though he declined to specify what those options are.

Emanuel's blunt assessment of the sign, which city zoning administrator Patricia Scudiero and Ald. Brendan Reilly, 42nd, greenlighted last year, sets up a confrontation between two towering figures with no small egos: Emanuel, with a reputation for calculated aggression that runs from Chicago to Washington, and Trump, famous for his "The Apprentice" reality TV show and the slogan "You're fired!"

An attempt to reach a representative of the 96-story Trump International Hotel & Tower, Chicago's second-tallest building, for reaction to the mayor's take on the sign was unsuccessful. Trump will have a chance to respond Thursday during a scheduled appearance on ABC's "The View."

Emanuel's assessment follows my negative review of the sign Friday and national news stories about the controversy.

In one, posted on The Wall Street Journal's website Tuesday, Trump lambasted the lead architect of his tower, Chicago's Adrian Smith, for calling the sign tasteless and claimed he had done more to design the building than Smith. And Trump repeated his argument that the sign will become as beloved as the LA's Hollywood sign.

"It happens to be great for Chicago, because I have the hottest brand in the world," Trump told the Journal.

Smith had a different view.

"Anything that would happen that would either reduce the size of the sign significantly or take it off would be great," he said Wednesday night.

To outsiders, the brouhaha stirred by Trump's sign may seem overblown in a city with many more serious problems, like rampant gun violence. But Chicago takes its architecture and public spaces seriously.

More than 200 feet above ground and backlit at night, the sign and its 20-foot-6-inch-high stainless steel letters loom over a venerable cluster of 1920s skyscrapers, among them the Wrigley Building. The sign, which faces the Chicago River, also threatens to spoil the view from a showcase Emanuel public works project — the ongoing expansion of Chicago's Riverwalk.

Though McCaffrey said the mayor is not focused on the precedent the sign sets, you don't need a degree in urban planning to realize that owners of other riverfront buildings could be tempted to follow Trump and plaster their skyscrapers with megasigns. The tourists Emanuel covets already are taking notice.

After a visit to Chicago, Terry Elder, of Toronto, emailed me: "We were overwhelmed with the beautiful buildings when we took the architectural boat cruise on the Chicago River; however, we were totally shocked and dismayed when we saw the sign going up on the Trump building."

With public outrage over the sign mounting, Ald. Reilly on Friday sought political cover by invoking the memory of the structure that used to occupy the Trump site: the bargelike Chicago Sun-Times Building. It was topped by a large yellow sign spelling out the paper's name.

"Funny how quickly people forgot the enormous, ugly Chicago Sun-Times sign that once stood in (this) exact location," Reilly tweeted — as if the absence of the old bad sign rationalized the presence of the new bad sign.

There was no mention of the gargantuan sign when the City Council approved Trump's skyscraper in 2002. In boilerplate language, the agreement regulating the tower said that "business identification signs" would come under the purview of Chicago's Department of Planning and Development.

In 2009, with the tower already open, the City Council approved a sign of 3,600 square feet, planning department spokesman Peter Strazzabosco said Wednesday in an email.

Last year, after a fresh round of negotiations, the council gave its OK to the present sign, which, when the "P" in "TRUMP" is installed, will cover 2,891 square feet.

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