How much damage is that Cuban flag doing? Image by Loozrboy licensed under Creative Commons.

A residential apartment building with balconies visible from Nats Park is threatening to fine its residents if they don't take down signs and flags hanging from their balconies. Some are baseball team logos, but others boil down to "Trump" and "Not Trump." There's no question the building's owners are allowed to do this. But what do they gain from it?

In a way, this is just the latest cover of the same song. This past December, there were big to-dos about the DC Council allowing giant digital screens outside of Nats Park the way they're allowed at the Verizon Center, and about a company called Digi Media illegally installing digital advertising signs on various buildings throughout the District.

Back in 2011, GGWash contributor Geoff Hatchard wrote about Douglas Development putting signs on the west side of the Uline Arena that essentially amounted to huge ads that Metro, MARC, and Amtrak passengers couldn't miss. The District later fined Douglas, and the local ANC helped get the signs removed altogether.

Commenters on Geoff's posts asked the same thing I did in the headline here: "What's the big deal?"

"I really don't get anti-sign bias. Look at old pictures of DC (or anywhere else)," wrote a commenter named Kolohe. "They are always full of signs."

In a post literally called "Why sign regulations matter," GGWash editorial director Dan Malouff wrote about how that's a fair point:

One of the most basic rules of urban design is that pedestrians need things to look at. Good walking cities are often visually messy cities. For this reason, many urbanists are hesitant to support strong sign control regulations. Signs are things to look at, after all.

But, Dan also said, "a handful of illegal signs might very well improve the visual diversity of a street, but if we eliminated sign regulations entirely, is a 'handful' what we would get?"

Dan's conclusion was this: 

In a previous job I worked in the zoning division of a local planning office. Part of my job was to process certain types of sign applications. Whenever I started to feel like I was wasting my time, I looked over to the image shown [below], which I kept tacked to my wall. It was, and is, a healthy reminder that seemingly mundane regulations do make a positive difference to our built environment.

Image by BeyondDC licensed under Creative Commons.

But what about these flags? To be clear, the building's lease says nobody can hang anything from their balconies, and nobody is questioning whether that's legal. But are the signs actually a problem? Would they be a problem if every balcony in the building had a flag? What if every balcony in the District did? Do flags are signs that are political change the answers to those questions? 

I asked our contributors what they thought.

Steven Yates says he doesn't mind the extra decoration:

I actually like the flags and banners people drape on their balconies on that building (I live nearby and see the building fairly regularly). It gives some interest and personality to the building. It's usually Nats stuff which is great to see across from the stadium but the political dialog going on I think is also fun (and very DC).  

Kelli Raboy said there was a point when not even the building owners seemed to be upset, and that it's a bit of a shame individuals can't express political beliefs given the relative size of their signs:

Some of these signs have been up for months. Wasn't a problem until they got press

There's something sad about the fact that these residents can't hang political signage but Nats Park will soon bombard them with commercial advertisements from LED billboards. Different entities making the decisions there, but still.

Dan Rowlands wondered if landlords may make their decisions based on signs' political messages:

A not entirely unrelated question seems to be political signs and flags on rental properties that aren't multi-unit.  I.e. rental houses or rowhouses.  I imagine that landlords could legally ban them, or ban ones they disagree with (I suspect my landlord is rather more conservative than me, so I haven't had the guts to ask his permission to put up campaign yard signs, for example).

Dan Reed said he gets where the building owners are coming from:

My building handbook says no decorations, no "bikes or other recreational equipment", no grills. You can put plants and furniture there and that's it.

While I like the signs, I do understand why a property owner (especially in a rental building) would ban them, as they are constantly hustling for tenants, and some of these signs may send the wrong message to potential tenants or even imply that the building endorses the messages presented. (I don't know about DC but it is common practice in Montgomery County for the big shopping center owners to post big campaign signs on their property for candidates they endorse.)

It seems clear to me that the building owners here feel that it's just easiest to enforce their rule about hanging things from balconies. I hear that; in all types of management, keeping it simple often makes a lot of sense. 

But I at least have to wonder: is this the kind of stuffiness that makes DC a terrible sports town?

Update: OK, that "terrible sports town" thing is up for debate.

Jonathan Neeley was Greater Greater Washington's staff editor from 2014-2017. He gets most everywhere by bike (or Metro when it's super nasty out), thinks the way planning decisions shape our lives is fascinating, and plays a whole lot of ultimate. He lives in Brookland.