Old Glory, Stars and Stripes and Zoning

July 3, 2012

It is appropriate that in this, the 51st year of our Zoning Resolution – and the 200th anniversary of the war of 1812 and our national anthem – that we point out that the American Flag – indeed any flag is a sign, under the City’s Zoning Resolution. 

As our friends at Milrose Consulting remind us in a recent newsletter: Signs are “any writing, pictorial representation, emblem, flag, or any other figure of similar character, (NYC ZR 12-12)” and are subject to restrictions in the NYC Zoning Resolution and the NYC Building Code. This means that if a flag hangs from a flagpole, is attached to a building or other structure or is illuminated within a store window, then it must comply with all signage guidelines.

In most all zoning districts (except for Times Square and Coney Island’s “entertainment” or C7 zones), signs must be no higher than either 20’ or 30’ above curb level.  There are also strict limits on the size of signs. Although the regulations do not apply to the US flag, (or those of UN Consular offices for, say, Poland for example), some businesses have placed their corporate flags alongside Old Glory – at heights well above 3 or 4 stories – and these flags are subject to the ZR’s strict limits.   While this is not as egregious as other sign violations (e.g. over-sized billboards along arterial highways), it nonetheless arguably contributes to visual pollution – and presents a slippery slope: We would not want every building in the City to be adorned with multiple flags at every level…

Interestingly, the Landmarks Commission has generally not focused on flags, given that their focus in on things permanently affixed to buildings (flags being temporary). But, flag poles attached to landmarked buildings are protected features of the landmark.

As for more traditional signs, NYC is notably free of high-rise signage – unlike say Hong Kong or even Baltimore or Philadelphia. In 1975, the RCA sign atop Rock Center was the highest advertising sign in the world (see Guiness Book of World Records, 1975).  This has been replaced the diminutive GE. But this was only allowed because the giant RCA sign was a legal, non-complying use – simply replaced by another non-complying sign in the same location. Similarly, the PanAm Building at 200 Park Avenue is now the MetLife Building – with a sign that replaced the old PamAm letters and West- and East-facing logos. But, MetLife and GE – together with a handful of others, are the exceptions.   NYC, despite being the largest City in North America (we’re twice the size of LA – that most visual of cities), and notwithstanding the notion that we’re the capital of capital, is generally free of corporate logos on our skyscrapers.