Firms’ emphasis on visibility a sign of the times

BYLINE: MARIA SAPORTA
Staff

DATE: September 6, 2004
PUBLICATION: Atlanta Journal-Constitution, The (GA)
EDITION: Home; The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
SECTION: Business Horizon
PAGE: E3

The old adage is that the three most important factors in real estate are location, location, location.

Today, that adage could be replaced by signage, signage, signage.

If signage on a building becomes the ultimate driver in picking a location, it doesn’t bode well for the future development of our region.

Two recent real estate moves illustrate the growing value of signage.

When Wachovia and SouthTrust merge in the next couple of months, the Southern headquarters of the new Wachovia will be at Atlantic Station, in the building that now houses SouthTrust’s Georgia operations.

Top executives currently at the 191 building, one of the most elegant structures on Peachtree Street without a rooftop sign, will move to the nondescript building.

But what that building does have is a massive SouthTrust sign that is visible daily from 500,000 cars traveling along the Downtown Connector.

The other real estate move is the announcement that the Savannah College of Art and Design will open an Atlanta campus next fall.

The two leading candidate sites for the SCAD-Atlanta campus are the downtown Macy’s building (across the street from the 191 building) and the old Equifax/former IXL building at the Brookwood Interchange. Again, a big advantage for the Equifax site is that SCAD could place a humongous sign overlooking the Downtown Connector.

In conversations with several real estate developers, brokers and business leaders, discussions of the merits of signage and location brought a variety of opinions.

“I do think signage is becoming more important, because companies are spending so much money on branding their businesses,” says Bob Voyles, who recently left the Hines development company to start his own firm.

When negotiating a lease with HomeBanc at Hines’ Perimeter Summit development, Voyles said signage was a key issue. “The value to them was being able to capture the visibility of 250,000 cars a day on I-285,” he says.

Historically, Hines stayed away from putting company names atop its buildings. In fact, during the 1980s and 1990s, most of the skyscrapers built in Atlanta let the architecture speak for itself. The buildings nevertheless developed identities: the IBM Tower, the Bank of America Plaza, SunTrust Plaza, the Pinnacle, the 191 Building, the King and Queen buildings near Ga. 400 and I-285. But no company plaqued its name on those structures.

Tom Bell, chief executive officer of Cousins Properties, was an advertising executive before going into real estate. “When I first got here, I said we have got great signage possibilities on the Connector,” Bell recalls. An analysis showed that a building sign overlooking the Connector had “real value worth $40,000 to $50,000 a year.”

As Bell sees it, signage can be an “accouterment” and serve as a tiebreaker, but it shouldn’t be the determining factor, especially for a tenant like SCAD.

“If I were SCAD, I would want to be in the midst of the college community, either in the heart of downtown or Midtown,” Bell says. “I wouldn’t want to be in that area in between Midtown and Buckhead.”

Even Atlanta’s top corporate citizens are playing the sign game. Georgia-Pacific added its blue logo to the top of its striking building downtown several months ago. The Coca-Cola logo has graced the top of its headquarters for years.

Bob Grigsby, a broker with NAI/Brannen Goddard who is helping SCAD find the right location, says it’s a big plus to have a sign on the Connector.

“It certainly is good exposure,” Grigsby says. “Visibility is an important factor with that building, because they are trying to attract a student base outside their normal realm.”

So the question becomes whether it’s image over substance. Is it better to have a sign seen by thousands of drivers on the expressway, or is it better to be in a location with a strong sense of place for people on the street?

It depends, says Ken Bernhardt, a marketing professor at Georgia State University.

“Visibility for visibility’s sake is not worth anything,” Bernhardt says. “What you want is visibility for the target audience.”

A case in point is the orange Cingular logo on top of its building on Ga. 400. “That’s a perfect target for them,” Bernhardt says. “People who are sitting in traffic on 400 are heavy cellphone users. That’s worth something.”

The formula is different for a SCAD, Bernhardt says. “People would not choose a school to go to and pay thousands of dollars of tuition based on a sign,” he says, adding that SCAD’s decision should be based on the best experience for its students. And a SCAD sign on the Macy’s building still would reach tens of thousands of people a day, he noted.

To real estate broker Tim Holdroyd of City Realty, the trend is not signage but companies leaving downtown for Midtown.

Although the SouthTrust building currently sits amid a sea of concrete, eventually it will include more retail and residential developments.

“I think they’re going where the growth is going,” says Holdroyd, who acknowledges that the “SouthTrust sign is incredible visibility.”

So does that mean the Downtown Connector has become Atlanta’s new Main Street?

Not so long ago, virtually every developer wanted its building to have a Peachtree address. In fact, the names of many streets were changed so that ”Peachtree” would be part of the address.

In addition to running Cousins, Bell also chaired the Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce’s Quality Growth Initiative, which is recommending land use policies to promote mixed-use and denser developments along transit lines.

To him, Peachtree Street will always be Atlanta’s grand boulevard — its signature address.

“Atlanta is becoming one of the great cities in the United States, and it will become even more so in the future,” Bell says. “And I think Peachtree Street will be Atlanta’s Park Avenue.”

For that to happen, location will need to carry more weight than signage. Substance will need to win over image.