Schenectady County

Rule nearly brings down GE icon

A new rule intended to clean up the city’s streetscapes almost had the unintended consequence of eli
Schenectady’s new ordinance will spare GE’s historic rooftop sign after all.
Schenectady’s new ordinance will spare GE’s historic rooftop sign after all.

A new rule intended to clean up the city’s streetscapes almost had the unintended consequence of eliminating the historic General Electric sign.

The brightly lighted landmark nearly fell afoul of a new rule included in the proposed new comprehensive plan, which states that all illegal signs must be removed by 2010.

The goal is to accelerate the city’s long effort to get rid of billboard-style signs in front of businesses. The problem is that General Electric’s 82-year-old sign is just as illegal as the oversized signs that have been more recently installed in front of other businesses.

It’s not just that the electric sign is big. Everything about it is illegal. Rooftop signs are simply not allowed in Schenectady, Zoning Officer Steve Strichman said.

Planning and zoning board members quickly brought up the issue when they reviewed the comprehensive plan, but couldn’t agree on whether to make rooftop signs legal. Strichman said the issue may be discussed again, but would have taken so long that it could have delayed the adoption of the comprehensive plan, already 21⁄2 years in the making.

But he had no intention of making GE take down its sign.

“They wanted to change it once, and the city opposed it,” Strichman said. “Rooftop signs are not allowed, but it’s a historic sign. It’s protected by the city. We don’t want it to change.”

So the rule states that all illegal “free-standing” signs be corrected by 2010. Free-standing is defined as any sign that isn’t attached to a building. The GE sign, which is wholly supported by a building, is safe.

GE officials were somewhat bemused to learn that their sign had been the topic of so much careful discussion.

“I would call it a landmark, rather than a sign,” said company spokeswoman Jan Smith. “It’s one of the most recognizable landmarks in the entire region.”

Its bright lights can be seen from a mile away. The company uses 1,399 bulbs to illuminate the 10-foot letters and the huge GE logo, which is 36 feet in diameter. The entire sign stretches 168 feet along the top of Building 37, and the bulbs are still changed by hand every December to celebrate Christmas. Since 2001, the bulbs have also been replaced every spring with red, white and blue to acknowledge 9/11 and the soldiers at war. Usually, the sign is illuminated with white bulbs during the year and red and green at Christmas.

It was erected in 1926 and placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1975, along with three buildings on the GE campus.

The sign may someday serve as a reason to allow more rooftop signs in Schenectady. Strichman cited it as an argument in favor of the beauty of such signs, saying, “Some of them are unique. There really is the ability to do some very nice rooftop signs.”

But he’s dead set against the more run-of-the-mill large signs placed on poles in front of city businesses. Those are the ones that must be removed within two years and replaced with much smaller advertisements, even if the business hasn’t changed hands. In previous years, such signs could remain in use as long as the same owner used the property.

But the signs are much too big for Schenectady, Strichman said.

“They’re out of pedestrian scale,” he said. “They are highway-oriented signs. One of our biggest headaches is people moving into property and wanting to use those signs.”

Categories: Schenectady County

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