It was an infuriating day when the owner of The Black Whale restaurant on City Island was ordered to remove it’s iconic wood-carved sign that dated back to 1961 because it wasn’t in compliance with an outdated city signage law on Saturday, September 15.
When the City Island mainstay was fined by the NYC Department of Buildings, Councilman Mark Gjonaj defended The Black Whale’s whimsical nameplate, instructing the restaurant to defy the city’s mean-spirited regulations, while promising to cover any additional fines that the action could incur.
The Black Whale, on Wednesday, January 9, became the poster (or sign) child to initiate new legislature that would temporarily place a hold on the antiquated and impractical city signage laws.
“Almost every single Bronx business is technically in violation,” said Lisa Sorin, president of the Bronx Chamber of Commerce.
She went on to explain that during Mayor Bloomberg’s administration, a moratorium was put on the arbitrary signage laws but was reinstituted under Mayor de Blasio.
As a matter of fact, any business that incorporates a phone number, address or email address to its outdoor signage is out of compliance with the city’s sign code and faces a civil penalty that ranges from $5,000 to $20,000.
The city ordinance only permits a maximum of 12 square feet of text coverage per sign, which barely allows sufficent room to display the shop’s name.
“When these laws were put in effect years and years ago it wasn’t a big problem, there were no email addresses,” Gjonaj said, adding his sentiment on how outdated legislation in general is harming small mom and pop shops throughout the Bronx.
There’s another issue with the policy that concerns Gjonaj as well.
He asked, why would a restaurant like The Black Whale, which opened over 50 years ago, suddenly be busted for its handmade sign for the first time in 2018?
Using 311, business competitors and sign makers have been reporting shops that aren’t in compliance, according to the councilman.
“A sign maker will go into a store and say “This sign doesn’t comply with the city’s code but I can fix it for you at a price. If the owner says ‘no’, then suddenly that store is reported to the city,” Gjonaj said, calling it a mobster-like shakedown tactic.
As a matter of fact, citywide 311 complains over signage have risen 1,533% since 2011.
“No small business can take a $20,000 hit like that. If that’s not extortion then I don’t know what is,” Gjonaj added.
His legislation, which has passed through committee would reinstate Bloomberg’s moratorium immediately, rolling back all subsequent fines issued to businesses from 2006 onward, until a new task force is set up to determine a more reasonable code for the millions of signs across the city.
“This is about putting tens of thousands of dollars back into the hands of small businesses,” Gjonaj said to The Black Whale’s owner, Richard DePierro.
As of press time the City Council passed the aptly named ‘Black Whale Bill’. Gjonaj is confident that it will become law even if the mayor vetoes the bill.