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Photo Courtesy of DCL (Fabricator), Design by Poulin+Morris
Photo Courtesy of DCL (Fabricator), Design by Poulin+Morris

Improved Sign Ordinance in Chicago

Posted: 07/28/2021

Success in Chicago: Coalition Effort Results in Improved Sign Ordinance

Chicago may be our country's third-largest city, but when it comes to getting signs permitted, it's closer to the bottom of the list. That's why ISA formed the "Signs of Change" coalition six years ago with the Illinois Sign Association (ILSA), the Small Business Advocacy Council (SBAC) and local chambers of commerce – to help change the entrenched "Chicago Way" of doing things.

For decades, if a business wanted a new sign approved and installed over the public way, they would have get the approval of City Council (50 Aldermen), which made the permit approval process lengthy, uncertain and burdensome.

For sign and graphics companies that do business in Chicago, the process requires skill, savvy and a lot of patience. The average sign permit takes 10-12 hours to file and 90-150 days to get approved. In some cases, permits have taken up to a year to be approved. Meanwhile, businesses are desperately waiting for their signs to be approved so they can communicate with the public.

It's taken some time, and we've suffered some setbacks, but now we are pleased to announce that our coalition's efforts have resulted in a significant improvement that will streamline the permitting process and make it easier for small businesses to get the signs they need in timely fashion.

Essentially, any sign permit application that is code-compliant and that raises no issues from the relevant Alderman's office or the City's Department of Business Affairs and Consumer Protection must be issued immediately. This eliminates at least 60 days in waiting for a public way permit approval through the full City Council. Before this legislation, businesses and sign companies would often have to wait up to 150 days to see if their sign permit was accepted or not.

"This is welcome news to all the small businesses in Chicago that depend on signs and graphics to communicate with the public," says Russ Salzman, Executive Director of the Illinois Sign Association (ILSA), "and it will make things easier for the sign companies that have been spending so much time and resources to get their customer's signs permitted."

This coalition effort is a prime example of what the sign and graphics industry can accomplish by working with small business groups and getting their customers involved in the process. If you’d like ISA to help improve your community’s sign ordinance, contact David Hickey, ISA's VP, Advocacy.

Some of the key efforts and successes of the "Signs of Change" coalition in Chicago include:

  • A June 2018 Chicago Sign Summit which brought together dozens of Chicago-area sign companies to identify problems in the sign ordinance and generate ideas on how to fix them.
  • A January 2019 Mayoral Forum in which seven candidates participated and answered questions about various small business issues, including the administration of the city's sign code. The forum and follow-up survey question helped the local small business community and the coalition determine which candidate would best support reasonable sign regulatory reform in Chicago. Then-candidate Lori Lightfoot best represented our interests, and in an upset she was elected as Mayor in May 2019.
  • Prior to her inauguration, SBAC's Elliot Richardson was appointed to Mayor-elect Lightfoot's Good Governance Transition Committee. In that capacity, the SBAC submitted a memo advocating for eliminating the requirement that public way use permits for simple signs be approved by the Chicago City Council, and be automatically renewed every five years for signs that are not changed. In a broader sense, the SBAC argued that there is no reason for City Council to spend time dealing with administrative functions and for the removal of politics from the process of approving things such as public way permits for simple signs.
  • In April 2020, a new ordinance passed to allow companies to place a second sign on high-rise office buildings under certain circumstances. For example, office buildings that are approved as a Planned Development, and that have major international or national tenants with a significant percentage of the occupancy, will be permitted to add a second sign which will not count against total square footage of signage at street level.
  • And in June 2021, as part of the "Chi Biz Strong" initiative, sidewalk signs were legalized to help businesses draw in pedestrian traffic from the street, providing an important boost in revenue and source of customers for Chicago's street-front retail businesses.

Once this new permitting provision becomes effective, small businesses in Chicago will be able to get much faster approval for their signs, thanks to Mayor Lori Lightfoot, key Chicago aldermen, and the advocacy efforts of the "Signs of Change" coalition.

Work remains to be done in Chicago to ensure that sign and graphics companies are able to get their customers the signs they need and deserve, and our coalition will continue to pursue such developments.

If you have questions about how this new law will be implemented, please contact Russ Salzman with the Illinois Sign Association (ILSA). If you’d like to educate your local officials about how reasonable sign regulations help promote businesses and communities, contact ISA's David Hickey.