Warning Signs

Paul Kjorlie hates vinyl banners in Soulard, so he hangs 'em from his house

One week out of every year, Paul Kjorlie hangs a small vinyl banner on the metal fence in front of his home on South Eleventh Street in historic Soulard.

"Welcome Race Fans," reads Kjorlie's three-by-eight-foot sign, which most recently graced his entryway the week of August 6, when the Indy cars were in town for a rare slate of races at Gateway International Raceway.

"I put it out once a year as a joke," says Kjorlie, who prefers the spiffy, svelte Formula One road-huggers and their open-topped cockpits to the more locally ubiquitous stock cars, which he deems "too redneck."

This year, however, one of Kjorlie's neighbors didn't crack so much as a smile when he saw the banner hanging from the fiftysomething landscape architect's front fence. Rather, this neighbor phoned Kjorlie in to the city's Division of Building and Inspection, which promptly cited Kjorlie for violating the city's comprehensive sign control regulations (specifically, section 26.68.060 of St. Louis City Revised Code) and ordered the banner removed within 30 days, lest Kjorlie be subject to a fine.

Nothing could have pleased Kjorlie more.

Amid a noon digestion ritual on the lush back patio of Soulard Coffee Garden, Kjorlie holds forth on the topic of the vinyl signs that adorn many a watering hole in the idiosyncratically stratified, rehabbed-from-the-ashes "island" of bustle that he has called home since 1976.

"I'm not trying to turn us into Georgetown [in Washington, D.C.], but in other historic neighborhoods around the country, they don't trash up [with banners]," says Kjorlie, who says he'd gladly put a halt to his annual Indy-car display should the city enforce a ban on vinyl signs in Soulard. "People come to Soulard for historic architecture. But if you're marketing to people who don't want to pay for parking in Laclede's Landing, it calls into question whether you want a quality historic district or not."

Herein, Kjorlie captures the essence of his neighborhood's ongoing identity crisis, one that pits restaurant and bar owners and their party-animal clientele against affluent rehabbers and longtime homeowners who wouldn't blink if the boozy borough up and went dry. For the good of the order, these factions have kept any animosity buried well beneath the banks of the Mississippi. Intentionally or otherwise, Kjorlie may soon succeed in igniting a full-blown battle between these rival constituencies. Leading by example with the suspension of a twenty-foot-long yellow Suzuki banner from his second-story window, he has started a fledgling campaign to encourage neighbors to hang gaudy vinyl banners from their own façades, in the hope that a flotilla of such signs will aesthetically insult the city into outlawing vinyl banners in Soulard.

A perusal of the St. Louis City Revised Code reveals that this sort of sign may already be illegal. Or not. The ordinances specific to signage are sufficiently confusing and verbally contradictory to merit broad interpretation as to what is and isn't permissible.

Seventh Ward Alderwoman Phyllis Young sides with Kjorlie -- at least in theory.

"Every bar in the city that has banners up is breaking the law," maintains Young, who bases this opinion on the fact that the only sort of "temporary signs" permitted in Section 26.68.030(M) are ones that involve "construction, re-modeling, rebuilding, development, sale, lease or rental" of a structure. Banners promoting pub crawls and drink specials, in other words, would be no-nos.

Building division spokesman Pat Maloney acknowledges that Young's interpretation may be technically accurate. But in practice, the city's building inspectors have their own view, one that conveniently lends itself to a laissez-faire attitude when it comes to vinyl banners and their ilk.

"Technically, you couldn't have a Cardinal banner hanging from your front porch," says Maloney. "But we've kind of taken a new look at things, and the signs we are talking about we can justify in a lot of different ways: decorations, conforming use, etc. We would, if we got a complaint, go out there and make sure. If someone put up a sign that says 'St. Patrick's Day, 2-for-1 beers' and it's still up in July, there's something wrong."

Either way, Young says that to vigilantly enforce such a ban would be a regulatory nightmare. "Building inspectors are supposed to be dealing with public-safety hazards," she explains. "We have other priorities in life."

"The city may have more important priorities," counters Kjorlie, "but they certainly had the time to cite my banner in August."

Responds Young: "We're in a budget cutback. If the neighborhood wants to take this on, then fine."

Kjorlie is taking it on. But if his movement gathers a significant amount of steam and finds its way into a bill before the Board of Aldermen that proposes to tighten language and enforcement surrounding legally questionable signage, he and his allies can expect a bitter battle from Soulard's food-and-liquor bloc.

"I think it's ridiculous," says Hammerstone's manager Julie VonderHaar. "We can't afford to advertise in print, paper, radio and television for every event that happens. We probably have as many people in this neighborhood that want to know what's going on as those who don't like the banners. So it's a wash."

"I have to agree that they're not historic, but at the same time, I think they're necessary for businesses to advertise," seconds Joanie Thomas, owner of Joanie's Pizzeria. "There's a difference between residents and businesses. I own a home here also, and I wouldn't put a banner on it."

If matters end up in court, VonderHaar and Thomas would be well served to trot out a unanimous 1994 U.S. Supreme Court ruling involving a local Persian Gulf War protestor and the city of Ladue. The genesis of the case was, of course, a sign, this one belonging to Margaret Gilleo, who, on December 8, 1990, affixed a placard in her front yard that read, "Say No to War in The Persian Gulf, Call Congress Now." The city ruled that the sign violated a sweeping city ordinance banning virtually all signage (on the premise that they intrinsically compromised the tony west-county hamlet's visual character). Gilleo opted not to take her municipal medicine sitting down, and after scoring several lower-court victories, she notched the ultimate legal triumph.

In its ruling, the Supreme Court was careful to preface that "while signs are a form of expression protected by the First Amendment, they are subject to municipalities' police powers since they take up space and may obstruct view, distract motorists and pose other problems which legitimately may be regulated."

Still, the justices found Ladue's ordinance to be unacceptably overreaching. "An ordinance which forecloses an entire medium poses a readily apparent danger to freedom of speech and such measures can suppress too much speech."

Perhaps not surprisingly, if Paul Kjorlie falls short in his effort to do away with vinyl signs in Soulard, he's got a potentially lucrative contingency plan. "I'm thinking about selling the naming rights for my home," he says. "To Suzuki."

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