Hide the Light

Qwest's big neon signs are giving Curtis Park the blues.

Curtis Park residents have reported a creepy blue glow hovering above their neighborhood for the past seven months. Is it a blue moon? No. Aliens? No. It's...the Qwest building at 1801 California Street.

The light, which emanates from the gigantic neon sign on the telecom company's building (one of three owned by Qwest), spills into homes and reflects off streets when it rains and snows. Its bold blue letters are even mirrored in other skyscrapers. No matter where they go, people in this community east of downtown can't escape it.

It's their neighborhood night-light.

Ted Marsters, who sits on the board of Curtis Park Neighbors Inc. and lives at 29th and Champa, wants the sign removed -- or at least turned down. He placed a message in last month's Curtis Park newsletter asking if anyone else feels the same way; so far, four neighbors have said they do, and a Capitol Hill resident who saw the newsletter called him, too.

"It's clearly not just a Curtis Park issue," Marsters says. "It's so invasive. If I could get them to shut it off, it would be wonderful. If they would at least turn it down, I'd be happy."

In fact, the skyscraper has identical signs on three sides, and at least one of them can be seen from the foothills; the Qwest building at 555 17th Street has two more signs. The luminous blue signs on the California Street building replaced the more subtle white US West signs in July, shortly after Qwest took over US West.

At its February 1 meeting, Curtis Park Neighbors Inc. gave Marsters permission to formally contact Qwest on behalf of Curtis Park residents and lent him its full support in his campaign to dim the light.

Joyce Goulet, president of the group, says she can't see the light from her home because the house next door blocks it, but she supports Marsters. "One night I was driving home in the snow and I saw an eerie blue light above me. I thought we were being invaded by aliens," she says, chuckling. "Then I looked up and realized it was the sign."

Bob West is worried about how the sign might be affecting birds. A member of the National Audubon Society, West says birding magazines have reported many times about birds flying into brightly lit buildings. "Office workers in other cities have agreed to turn off their lights at night because it confuses birds, which sometimes fly into the glass and die," he says. "Whether that goes on here, I don't know."

He also opposes the sign on philosophical grounds. "I don't like the idea of turning buildings into advertising billboards for the companies that own them. Why do they need to advertise? They're in competition with no one."

Before Marsters approaches the phone company, he wants to get the backing of other neighborhood associations and community groups. Then he plans to call Qwest representatives and "ask nicely" if they'll do something about the sign. "My supposition is that they'll do nothing," he says. "If that's the case, I'll move to put on more pressure."

He might start a petition drive or launch a grassroots campaign complete with bumper stickers and T-shirts.

"I don't think we'll do anything drastic, like picket," adds Goulet. "Everyone who can see the sign from their house is bothered by it. It really dominates the downtown area."

Qwest spokesman Matt Barkett won't comment on what, if anything, Qwest would consider doing until the company receives a formal objection. "I'm not aware of any complaints," he says. "We'll address any that come along, but I don't want to speculate about what might happen."

He also hasn't heard of any birds flying into the sign.

Kent Strapko, a zoning administrator with the City of Denver, says the sign meets the city's code, but he can't locate the actual permit containing its dimensions. He says someone in the code-enforcement office may have pulled it from the file to address a complaint about the sign. But that office can't seem to find the permit, either.

Companies that occupy most or all of the space in a downtown building are allowed to put up signs that take up 3 percent of the building's exterior wall surface, and Strapko says Qwest's signs fall within those parameters. Bright signs are fine, too, as long as they don't create glare, which is defined by city ordinance as anything that is so bright that you have to avert your eyes. "I don't believe it's glare," says Strapko, but he acknowledges that his office receives one or two complaints about the sign every couple of months, including a recent one from residents in northwest Denver.

"People say they want us to remove the sign, but we can't do that, because we issued the permit," he says. "I agree that this is a lot of signage, but this code has been around since the 1950s or '60s. If people want to change the law, they'd have to approach city council, and no one has ever proceeded with that."

Barkett says that Qwest doesn't have a copy of the sign permit and that he doesn't know how big the signs are. But, he brags, they're big enough to be seen from an airplane.

Marsters says he doesn't want the campaign to become his life's focus. "I'd just like to get back Denver's skyline," he says. "This isn't Qwest City."

 
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