First Presbyterian Church of Evanston will seek city approval next week for a video message sign it installed in the church facade to replace an old-fashioned menu-board style sign with plastic letters.

The city’s sign code sharply restricts what it refers to as “commercial variable message signs,” saying they may only be used to display the time and temperature.

The time and temperature exception would appear to have been carved out for the benefit of banks, many of which in years gone by featured time and temperature signs outside their branches.

(We couldn’t recall any present-day time and temperature signs in Evanston. If you know of any, feel free to add the location to a comment on this story.)

The city’s building and inspection services divison manager, Gary Gerdes, says the church installed the new sign without seeking a permit after inquiring about the regulations.

Just last month the Design and Project Review Committee denied a request from the owner of the Citgo station on Green Bay Road to install a variable message sign as part of a renovation to that business.

A mockup of the rejected Citgo station “LED message board” sign.

But also last month the city’s Preservation Commission voted to recommend approval of the church sign on a 9-0 vote.

With sign technology evolving rapidly in recent years, signs showing variable messages can range from highly distracting to very subtle, but the city’s sign code doesn’t make such distinctions.

One issue the church hasn’t raised is whether their sign even counts as “commercial.” The sign code doesn’t define that in reference to variable signs, but it defines a commercial message as one that offers for sale products and services. Assuming the church isn’t charging admission for its Sunday services, perhaps its new sign isn’t commercial at all.

The city Design and Project Review Committee meeting about the sign is scheduled for 2:30 p.m. Wednesday at the Civic Center.

Update 8/23/18: No one from the church appeared at Wednesday’s Design and Project Review Committee meeting and the sign issue was continued until a future meeting on a date to be determined.

Bill Smith is the editor and publisher of Evanston Now.

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