UPMC will light up the city skyline after all.
In a flip-flop, the city planning commission yesterday approved a request by the health care giant to put its well-known initials at the top of the U.S. Steel Tower, Downtown.
The decision came only two weeks after the commission, in a 3-3 vote, rejected the 20-foot-tall sign. UPMC requested reconsideration and commission members voted 6-1 with one abstention yesterday to reverse course.
They did so after Pat Ford, Mayor Luke Ravenstahl's director of economic and community development, told them that the decision to reject the sign put the city on "some very shaky legal ground" given that UPMC had met all of the legal requirements in the city zoning code.
The sign, at 1,900 square feet, is about half the size allowed under city zoning laws. Further, the letters, at 20 feet high, are about 4 feet shorter than those on nearby One Mellon Center.
Paul Dick, a planning commission member who did not vote two weeks ago, said he personally dislikes the many signs that have popped up on buildings Downtown, but he added that UPMC has a right under law to display its initials on the U.S. Steel Tower.
"I might hold my nose a little bit, but I will vote for it," he said.
Two other members, Barbara Mistick and Todd Reidbord, also voiced support for the proposal.
"I do think it continues to add to our skyline," Ms. Mistick said.
Mr. Reidbord said the commission was "mandated" to approve the sign given the zoning law.
"I think it's a good sign. I like the sign. I think it does give a vitality to Pittsburgh. I think that's what we need. We need to look forward," he said.
Barbara Ernsberger, who voted against the proposal two weeks ago and yesterday, said her own informal survey, done at a birthday party and in other settings, found no support for the sign.
"They all thought the U.S. Steel building represented U.S. Steel and the history of Pittsburgh, that everybody knows who UPMC is and it doesn't really require a sign to identify itself," she said.
Ms. Ernsberger added that she doesn't believe size is the only issue on which the commission can base its decision. She said she believes the law also allows members to take into account the historic significance of the building.
"I do feel this sign does counteract the historic presence of what used to be the U.S. Steel Building, which was certainly significant in our Pittsburgh history and also to some extent in our national history. So I think that UPMC really ought to consider whether it needs to place a sign on top of the U.S. Steel building," she said.
Another member, Lynne Garfinkel, abstained yesterday after voting "no" two weeks ago. She said the commission should consider revising city standards for building signs.
In a statement, UPMC said it was pleased with the commission's decision.
"While some other prominent corporate headquarters have left the city, we are proud to reaffirm our commitment to Pittsburgh and to the revitalization of Downtown," it said.
"The UPMC logo will be a visible indication of Pittsburgh's re-emergence as a national and international leader. No longer reliant on the steel industry, Pittsburgh's new renaissance is built on science, medicine and technology."
Attorney Clifford Levine, a former planning commission member who represented UPMC yesterday, said he wrestled with the issue of building logos -- whether they are a sign of city vitality or pollute the skyline -- as a member of the city board.
The commission, he said, eventually settled on a standard that allows a sign to cover up to 2 percent of a building's face as a compromise. The UPMC sign is half that size and is "consistent with our goal to show the vitality and vibrancy of the city while at the same time discouraging billboard proliferation."
"Clearly it is permitted," he said.
The sign -- three signs actually -- which will be illuminated at night. The intensity of the light will be controlled by a sophisticated dimming system.
UPMC, which plans to lease five floors of the building, hopes to have the signs in place by early 2008.
Mark Belko can be reached at email@example.com or 412-263-1262.