A Foolish Consistency

The other night I was driving south on Highway 101. Shortly after I passed Woodside Road, I looked to see my beloved Ampex sign, and laughed at what greeted my eyes:

I was still giggling as I pointed it out to my wife. Continuing on, however, I started to really think. While I’m sure that this was just a maintenance issue, and not intentional, it occurred to me that perhaps here was an opportunity in disguise. Ampex never really was much of a consumer brand, and nowadays the company—which now appears focused on making rugged recording and storage systems—sells to defense contractors, aircraft manufacturers, and the like. Although Ampex has a proud history that I think justifies the preservation of their sign, the company today is significantly smaller than it once was, and probably would welcome alternative sources of income. And here, due to a burned out letter in their sign, is an ideal source of additional revenue: just point out to the American Express company that Ampex could do a bit of advertising for them every night simply by not replacing the bulb illuminating the “p” in their sign. And Ampex would even save a few cents worth of electricity by not having to power that letter…

The more I thought about it, the more I thought that this might be a great strategy for Redwood City itself. I found myself looking around for city-owned properties with signs, ones that both aren’t needed at night and that, by eliminating parts of the lettering, would make cheap and easy advertisements. Just around me I found a couple. For instance, there is this little park on Whipple Avenue just above Alameda de las Pulgas, right across from Sequoia Hospital:

How is this not perfect for Unilever, the maker of Dove soap? Get them to pay for a new electric sign that looks similar to this one but only lights up the word “Dove” at night. Not only would the people walking and driving by repeatedly have the word “Dove” imprinted on their brains, but also there are all those hospital patients looking out their windows at the park down below… For a small monthly fee, a fee that could go towards improving our parks, I say we sell Unilever the rights to this sign.

On a busier street, how about this park sign?

Can you see it? Four letters, dead center. The Ford Motor Company would love this one! “Stafford Park” by day, “Ford” by night. They’d probably want to change the font so that their scripted Ford logo would look right, but that shouldn’t be a big deal; just write the words “Stafford Park” using the same script, so that by day it simply advertises the park, while by night it advertises a storied automobile brand. Genius, right? I could go on and on, but I won’t.

This would only work for places where the sign isn’t needed at night, which is the case with our parks: they generally aren’t to be used after sundown anyway. But our schools are good candidates (Hoover!), as are our fire stations and government buildings. Some nights they are in use, but on those occasions (as for a back-to-school night, for instance) it would be a simple case to fully illuminate the sign. When the building is otherwise closed to the public, though, why waste such a good opportunity? Heck, we could even take this all the way to the very center of our local government:

After all, how hard would it be to tweak the lighting so that “City Hall” would on most nights say “Citi” instead? I bet Citibank would just love it…

No, I’m not really serious about any of the above. It is just that this post, my 100th for this blog, happens to fall on a particularly special day, and I couldn’t resist having a little fun. Indeed, if you take the time to look back, you’ll see that I’ve written 100 posts (including this one) based on my walks around our little city. All in all, I’ve written almost 185,000 words so far, and published about 565 images. And those are just the photos I chose to use! I’ve actually taken more than 6,300 pictures for this blog. Looking back I’m a bit astonished, frankly, at what I’ve managed to crank out since that first post back in August of 2013. For the foreseeable future I plan to keep it up: I have a number of ideas for future posts, and our city staff, council and commission members, real estate developers, and residents all keep doing things that give me fodder for the blog.

It isn’t just Redwood City that’s giving me material, I should note. As I’ve mentioned before, due to its proximity I also intend to cover some of what is going on with our neighboring communities, primarily (but not only) San Carlos. Lately they’ve started to follow Redwood City’s lead, allowing a number of projects both large and small to get started. I expect many of you are as interested as I in what changes are going to be affecting the lives not only of San Carlos residents, but of those of us living nearby. I wrote in some detail about some of the bigger projects being built up there (We Are Not Alone, September 11, 2015) but after recently learning about a couple more, I spent some time this week doing research and then putting together a list of projects that I want to follow. I then took a walk up El Camino to gather some more information and to take some photographs. I have a lot more research to do yet, but expect to start hearing about San Carlos a little more frequently in the near future.

As long as I’m talking shop, I was recently contacted by another local blog, The Front Porch, and asked to do an interview. This blog, which was created “to share Redwood City real estate news, events, and community stories,” is run by a delightful young couple who, as it turns out, live not far from me. They just posted their interview with me, so if you are curious about who I am and why I’m writing this blog, you may want to check it out. Here is a direct link: http://thefrontporchrwc.com/news/2016/3/30/rwc-locals-an-interview-with-greg-wilson. Of course, if you enjoy a bit of mystery, and prefer making up your own stories about who I am and why I’m writing, just forget I said anything!

Just so that this post isn’t all fun and games, I thought I’d mention the recent discussion that our City Council had around potential changes to the Downtown Precise Plan (DTPP) to require “active ground floor uses” for storefronts on Main Street between Broadway and Middlefield Road. In my recent post The Wearing of the Green I briefly mentioned that one of the City Council’s priorities in the upcoming term is to encourage more retail on Main Street, and the council has wasted no time in jumping on it. At their March 28 City Council meeting our Assistant City Manager/Community Development Director, Aaron Aknin, presented a proposal from city staff that would essentially prevent ground-level storefronts on Main from being occupied by tech companies and the like, reserving them instead for “active” uses: retail, restaurants, personal and business services (including hair and nail salons), and some entertainment uses. Above the ground floor, and behind the ground-floor space, offices and other types of businesses would still be allowed.

When the DTPP was originally created there were a number of retail vacancies in the downtown area. The creators of the DTPP decided to concentrate retail along Broadway, and appropriate rules were written into the plan. Rather than let them sit empty, offices were allowed elsewhere: in storefronts along Main Street, for instance.

Since the creation of the plan, however, as Redwood City residents are painfully aware, the rebounding economy has done great things for our downtown: nearly every empty storefront has been filled. Unfortunately, not all of those spaces were filled with restaurants and shops: small tech companies, desperate for space—and seeing a good deal, rent-wise, in our retail storefronts—snapped up a number of prime spaces. On Main Street, for instance, more than 25% of the storefronts have been leased for “non-active” uses. Although we have gotten some great new “active” businesses on Main—Aly’s on Main, The Striped Pig, Gambrel & Co., to mention three—leasing one-quarter of the potential storefronts to companies that don’t attract walk-in business has made Main Street significantly less interesting to the pedestrian shopper.

Unfortunately, given our current tech boom, a landlord can get 50% or more per square foot in rent for office space than for retail space. Thus, there is a natural inclination for landlords to lease prime ground-floor storefronts for non-active uses. You might think that the damage has been done—nearly all of the storefronts on Main Street are currently leased—but as leases expire, there is real danger that rents will be jacked up to the point where retailers can no longer afford them.

And then there are the landlords, whose rights need to be taken into account. This is America, after all, and they do have a right to make money. Do we have the right to deny them the best lease price they can get?

This, then is the dilemma that the city faces. The presentation to the City Council, which was followed by public comment and a pretty good back-and-forth by the council members, resulted in the Council voting to initiate the process to address the problem. No laws were passed and no ordinances were changed, but the Council made its desires known—which are to encourage more retail on Main Street between Broadway and Middlefield Road—and directed city staff to research solutions and begin a process that will involve the Planning Commission, the residents of Redwood City, and, ultimately, the City Council again for a final decision. Watch for future discussion on the topic, and for opportunities for you to make your opinions heard. Whatever your take on the issue, this has the potential to really change the face of our downtown, and thus merits your input.

3 thoughts on “A Foolish Consistency

  1. (From Pete Hammar, Ampex Museum founder):

    “Ampex Corporation”, such as it is today, has become a subsidiary of a small “tech” company in the East Bay, reportedly still servicing DCRS data machines for DC spooks and “mining” the last of the patents that Fast Eddie sucked dry of almost all its blood before selling the corpse to those suckers.

    Now this gets weird: you’d think the new owners would have jealously guarded the “Ampex” name, but now there’s a corporation that owns a bunch of quick-service restaurants (“QSR”), Ampex Brands, founded in 2005: http://www.ampexbrands.com . Go figure. I’d love to ask the founders of this oddity why they chose “Ampex” as a name, which made sense for an electronics company, but not for one that sells cheap fried fish, lousy root beer, greasy chicken, and fake Mexican food! 😉

    As for that sign on 101, as far as I’ve heard, no one seems to know—or care—who owns it or the tiny piece of land it sits on. Stanford Medical would logically be the owner, but even if they are, it’s going to cost several thousand dollars to tear down the sign and its substantial 1963 structure. Its power went dead a couple of years ago and it remains dark. Before that, who paid the power bill?

    While the lights were still on, it read “A PEX” heading south and “A EX” heading north, and the light-diffuser over the “E” on the south side had also fallen off—real classy! People who are suggesting the sign be saved as an “antique” don’t realize that abortion in ca. 1990 replaced the original 1963 classic. It’s not only junk, it’s Bramson’s junk.

    Maybe “Ampex Brands” will acquire the sign and take it down, but keep the vertical posts and put “Colonel Chicken” up there! Or maybe the City of RWC will find the legal owner and condemn the blasted thing, so somebody will be forced to tear it down, putting to rest the last physical public vestige of a once-great company. R.I.P., Ampex. :-[

    If anyone has heard updates to “The Saga of the Ampex Sign”, please let me know.


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