Towns Demand Companies Bend To Visual Identity

But some corporations claim this means adopting almost 'invisible' signage

BRUCE COOPER remembers well the day he confronted Toys 'R' Us, the giant toy-store chain, about a "fortresslike" concrete wall the company was planning to build alongside a new store near Calgary, Alberta.

"I said to them: 'You have to do something to this wall,' " says the young urban planner. "Make it look like someone cares."

After a few false starts, Toys 'R' Us did do something. It designed into the wall a pattern of children's characters. It was, Mr. Cooper says, a small but important victory to have the big United States corporation bend to conform to a community's visual identity.

All across North America, citizen activists and urban planners alike are stepping up action requiring corporations to fit more gently into their communities. Frequently, this requires scaling back or redesigning signs and buildings - something companies often resist.

"There is a growing public sophistication, a concerted effort ... to minimize the impact of these corporate facilities on the community," says Ronald Lee Fleming, a Massachusetts architect and authority on community design.

Corporate expansion into historic towns and suburban communities is fueling the public demand to maintain community identity, urban planners say. Fast-food chains that will not comply with local design standards have been barred outright from Columbia, Md., and Palm Springs, Calif. But these communities are not alone in raising the design hurdle.

Today, more than 4,000 "architectural design review districts" require a consistent community architectural-design standard. Just 20 years ago, only a handful of historic areas mandated that gas stations, fast-food restaurants, drugstores, and other businesses conform to community design standards.

Reigning in the explosion of "loud" architecture of fast-food chains and gas stations is key, Mr. Fleming says. Among fast-food providers, McDonald's, Burger King, and Kentucky Fried Chicken share "a major responsibility" for ensuring design quality in the North American commercial landscape, he says.

Encouragingly, Fleming cites a "significant shift" away from indifference on adapting corporate outlets.

"We want to be a part of the community, to blend in, and meet community needs," says Walt Riker, a spokesman for McDonald's Corporation in Oak Brook, Ill. "But you can become invisible to the point where your brand is invisible, and then there's no point in having a business. You communicate your brand through signage and architecture."

Still, he acknowledges that the public is demanding that companies adapt to the community rather than simply defend a cookie-cutter standard. In suburban Toledo, Ohio, for example, McDonald's has renovated a Georgian-style bank building with gables and a steeple. In New England, it has built several outlets in the clapboard style of the region.

But McDonald's has 16,000 restaurants worldwide, including about 10,000 in the US and 726 in Canada. Only a fraction are special adaptations. Mr. Riker points out that the company complies with community requirements. Urban planners say McDonald's and others aren't going to supply better design if communities don't demand it.

Hundreds of urban planners discussed this dilemma at a conference of North American planners in April in Toronto.

"We have difficulty having our City Council believe enough in itself to even ask for design changes," one urban planner from upstate New York told a group. "I know our council couldn't stand the thought of allowing any business to just leave."

But others, like Theresa Greenfield, a planner for Agnes Heights, Minn., were adamant. Despite Agnes Heights's fast growth - from a population of 7,000 to more than 13,000 in just a few years - the town has insisted upon more careful screening of projects and tighter zoning standards.

"We've lost some businesses because of our standards," Ms. Greenfield says. "But you've got to have the courage of your convictions. It requires patience and the ability to let [businesses] walk away - and to not be so desperate."

Often, a city fails to win a special design because it is overmatched by the collective knowledge of a company's marketing, legal, and design team - or because it lacks the basic tools. In order to require companies to adapt themselves to the "look and feel" of a community, Fleming says the following steps should be followed:

r Develop a clear, visual design standard geared to a specific idea of community identity and character, written into the city ordinances.

r Be specific as to size, height, color, and other requirements for signs and buildings, buttressed by photographs of current design examples.

r Don't accept the first or even the second design that is offered by a company. Usually companies have a great many designs for their outlets, but only one or two will attract the most customers and are the cheapest to build.

r Keep on hand the names and addresses of local architects and artisans who could help a company adapt its outlet to the community's needs.

r Be consistent in the application of tight zoning requirements to avoid legal pitfalls. A company may threaten to sue if its design isn't accepted. But community standards that have been uniformly applied have been regularly upheld by higher courts.

Markham, Ontario, has grown from 50,000 to 153,000 people in the past 15 years. In that time, Regan Hutcheson says the city has established four "heritage areas" and defended itself against gasoline stations with canopies so large they look like they are from outerspace. "Esso wanted to build their large type canopy, and we got them to take the design back to what a gas station looked like 40 years ago," he says. "It's a little kiosk with guys in uniform."

That tougher approach is part of the shift Fleming has observed growing so quickly. "How a community looks is starting to matter to the people who live [there]," he says. "We're coming to our senses."

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