So you're driving one night along U.S. 29 in suburban Columbia toward your home on Happy Heart Lane, when, suddenly, you find yourself wondering: What's that bright red glow coming from across the Town Center lakefront?
And then you realize: Why, it's a great big neon sign!
This is not a vision seen very often in Columbia, a planned community known, among other things, for its strict rules on signage. Its marketing motto might be: No 50-foot golden arches or gas station markers here.
Which is why some locals have been surprised to see the shining red advertisement on two sides of the 10-story Sheraton hotel in the middle of what was intended to be Columbia's downtown.
But the sign, which reads -- what else -- "Sheraton," isn't actually neon. It just looks like it. Neon signs aren't allowed on commercial buildings in developer James W. Rouse's suburban city. Neither are flashing signs, moving signs, wooden signs or roof-mounted signs.
Even so, the eight red letters that would be innocently accepted in nearly any other jurisdiction -- such as North Laurel along U.S. 1 or Ellicott City along U.S. 40 -- have raised eyebrows at the Rouse Co., which has discretion over such matters at Town Center.
Jerry Smith, the Sheraton's general manager, said the hotel went through the usual approval process with Howard County and the Rouse Co.'s architectural review committee, and were told the signs were in compliance. That was before the company saw the actual signs.
"It's a question of the illumination on it, and we want a clarification," said Alton J. Scavo, a senior Rouse vice president and general manager for Columbia, who can see the bright red lettering, day or night, from his lakefront office.
Scavo said the Rouse Co. didn't realize that the signs, which cost about $50,000, would be "face-lit" or "true letter-lit" rather than "halo-lit," the style Rouse used when it owned the building, until recently the Columbia Inn.
The previous sign was in white, as opposed to the brighter -- and more noticeable -- red.
Of course, that's the point: to be noticed. That's something Scavo, as a businessman, can understand.
"I can't tell you how many times people came up to me in the parking lot and asked for directions" to the Columbia Inn, said Scavo.
Issue in community
"The purpose of signage is to find it," he said.
Signage -- or the lack of it -- has long been an issue in Rouse's experimental community, which has grown to nearly 90,000 residents. Local merchants have complained that regulations calling for small, unobtrusive signs cause them to lose customers.
Two years ago, the illumination of an 18-by-8-foot sign for the Lone Star Steakhouse & Saloon on Route 175 caused an uproar at neighboring eateries, which claimed they couldn't compete.
"I still like the idea of not having a lighted sign up that high," says Joseph Merke, Town Center's representative on the Columbia Council, the governing body of the Columbia Association.
Asked how the Sheraton sign came to be approved, he said, "I was wondering that myself."
Nick Mangraviti, the former chairman of the Town Center Village Board and an architect, rather likes the idea of a sign, if only for the reason that it will help people find where they're going.
But he admits he would like it more if it weren't quite so big.
"I kind of welcome it in general, but I wish it were 10 to 15 percent smaller," he said. "It's a little glaring from the highway. We don't need that much sign."
Pub Date: 2/17/99