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Taste Police Target Beer Room with Selective Enforcement

Can Downtown Survive Red-Tape Fetish?

Institution Ale's Ryan Smith and son Shaun Smith won the fight to keep their neon sign. | Credit: Paul Wellman

The last time I wrote about the city’s Sign Committee, I think the Berlin Wall was just falling down. I remember wondering what the hell I was doing with my life. I didn’t have a good answer then. I still don’t.

Sometimes when reality overwhelms ​— ​as it is so loudly now ​— ​I seek refuge on top of mole hills rather than the mountain tops. The views aren’t as nice, but I’m less likely to sustain bodily harm if I trip and fall.

Such is the case now with City Hall’s narrowly defensible but utterly unfortunate decision to pick a fight about the neon sign hanging on the wall inside Institution Ale, which opened up shop on the 500 block of State Street just a few months ago. Institution Ale comes from Camarillo, where its mother ship launched about six years ago right next to the former Camarillo Psychiatric Hospital, which inspired its name and that of many of its drinks, to the consternation of some. It’s famous for brewing classic, in-your-face West Coast IPAs, the sort of over-amped fare that make my eyeballs seize in their sockets after half a glass. Personally, I’m not big a fan of beer that tastes how old basements smell. I’d rather chew a wrung-out bar rag. Give me a crisp lager or a pilsner instead ​— ​both of which, it turns out, Institution Ale serves ​— ​something superficially breezy and pleasant but still neurotic enough to be interesting. 

But that’s not the point.

About a month again, Jaime Limón, a new member of the city’s Sign Committee, was walking down State Street when he noticed that Institution Ale’s admittedly large yet still graphically understated interior neon sign might be closer to the front window than city code allows. Limón ​— ​who retired a year ago after having worked 15 years as chief staff officer for the multitude of city sign review boards and should have known better ​— ​called in his concerns to city code enforcement workers, thus triggering an inquest which determined the sign encroached, though just barely, into the 10-foot set-back required of all interior neon from the shop’s front. “Just barely” doesn’t much count when it comes to horseshoes, being pregnant, or, it turns out, city sign ordinances. Hence, the owners received an official notice they could be fined as much as $200 a day for their sign’s disruption of our civic tranquility. 

I can’t remember if it was Sun Tzu or Von Clausewitz who said “Pick your battles,” but clearly Limón ​— ​undeniably conscientious, dedicated, and hardworking when he was a cog in The Machine ​— ​was not listening. Similarly, Limón must have been otherwise distracted when Bill Clinton famously issued the 11th Commandment: “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” Likewise, for the sage admonition “Let sleeping dogs lie,” first popularized by Sir Robert Walpole, Great Britain’s first prime minister back in the 1700s. Perhaps Limón knew Walpole said as much when the 13 colonies were erupting in revolution. That, we all know, didn’t end well for Great Britain, and perhaps Limón did not wish to repeat that history.  

Either way, he stepped in it. He should have stepped around it.

In 2011, the city’s sign ordinance was amended to deal with a proliferation of ticky-tacky, brick-brack string-light signs then popping up, installed by fly-by-night operators. By contrast, Institution Ale’s sign is art-house austere. Its building, which boasts the coolest expanse of curved, unreinforced window pane in town, has been designated as “streamline modern.” Its outdoor seating area is a great spot to watch the world go by. While there, you forget that State Street is desperately trying to unflush the toilet it currently finds itself in. That’s because the 500 block ​— ​due to places like Institution Ale ​— ​is popping. In such a setting, Alfred E. Neuman of Mad Magazine might well have wondered, “What, me worry?” The 600 block of State Street, in sharp contrast, is all tumbleweeds, vacant storefronts, and real estate signs. It’s so dead panhandlers avoid it. The 400 block is a case study of attention deficit disorder on steroids. If it weren’t for the dirty bookstore ​— ​which notably holds Santa Barbara’s record for the longest surviving business in the same location ​— ​that block would have no defining anchor.  

The owners of Institution Ale sought an exception from the Sign Committee and were shot down 2-1. Michael Drury, a contrarian and landscape painter, cast the sole dissenting vote. “There is a need to balance the sign ordinance with reality,” he said. “And the reality is State Street needs all the help it can get.”

Joe Andrulaitis, architect for Institution Ale, said his clients will appeal it all the way to the City Council if need be, where I suspect it will ultimately be granted an exemption. Every step of the way, City Hall looks worse. If the appeal fails, the sign can be moved to a back wall where, counterintuitively, it would intrude far more aggressively in the faces of passersby. Little wonder the first draft of a consultant’s report ​— ​paid for by City Hall ​— ​reportedly painted a grim picture of rigid fetishism inside City Hall where red tape is concerned. 

Limón, in an email, cited fairness and equity among his concerns. How can we expect other businesses to follow the rules if the city turns a blind eye to Institution Ale? “How can you say ‘no’ to other similar signs if this sign is allowed to remain?” he asked. 

Fair question. Maybe the answer is there aren’t many ​— ​or any ​— ​similar signs.

It’s also that anyone walking down State Street can see a host of other signs that obviously violate the sign ordinance. Andrulaitis provided a photo slide show for the Sign Committee showing at least eight. Conspicuously, no enforcement actions have been initiated against any of them.

The good news? The Berlin Wall is no longer falling down. The bad news? Everything else is.

In the meantime, Institutionalize yourself. Enjoy the world as it walks by.

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