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Birchmere brushes up against city zoning ordinance in switch to electric signage

New sign at The Birchmere (image via City of Alexandria)

(Updated 10:10 a.m.) Like Bob Dylan, The Birchmere has switched to electric — at least for its signage. Also like Dylan, it’s a change that’s causing some trouble for the music venue.

It started last summer when famed music venue The Birchmere Music Hall (3701 Mount Vernon Avenue) was finding it difficult to hire someone to change out the letters on the venue’s old sign.

According to a special use permit application:

In July 2022, after having trouble finding people willing to do the manual labor of changing out the sign, trying to think of ways to enhance The Birchmere and attract additional business coming out of a devastating pandemic that severely impacted its revenues, and looking at the modern technology employed by other successful music venues in the region and beyond, the owner of the music venue replaced the changeable copy sign with a digital freestanding sign in the exact same location along Mount Vernon Avenue.

The venue owners built a new sign using the same pole as the original sign, with an additional pole on either side for added stability. The new sign is slightly larger than the previous one and has a new digital display.

Unfortunately for The Birchmere, the change ran afoul of the city’s zoning ordinance.

“Although the sign is constructed using the same sign pole as the original sign and is only slightly larger, the current sign can no longer be approved administratively due to the 2016 revisions to the Zoning Ordinance pertaining to signage requirements,” the special use permit said.

In November, a warning was issued to The Birchmere along with instructions to bring the sign back into compliance.

The venue has since filed an aforementioned special use permit application to waive some of the requirements for the sign.

“This modern sign, which allows for the digital change of copy, is consistent with the use of the Property as a music venue,” the permit application said. “The Birchmere is an iconic venue that has been attracting major artists and their fans to the City of Alexandria, celebrating music and contributing to the City’s tax base, for over forty years.”

The Birchmere argued in the application that the new sign isn’t causing any harm and is vital to the venue’s continued success.

“Given that the old sign and new sign are similar in size, in the same location, and illuminated (albeit through different mechanisms) there will be no negative impact of the new sign on pedestrians, drivers or the surrounding area,” the application said. “Finally, the proposed sign is a critical component of The Birchmere’s continued success as an arts and cultural venue, the value of which has been emphasized in the City’s Master Plans and economic development initiatives.”

The new sign application is scheduled to take the stage at a Planning Commission meeting on Feb. 7.

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