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Awnings can go away

Members of the Hillsboro City Council voted unanimously Monday night to support an ordinance that would make awnings — or “pedestrian weather protection standards” — optional rather than mandatory for downtown businesses.

A final vote on the issue will be taken during the council’s Aug. 6 meeting.

Karla Antonini, Hillsboro’s downtown project manager, said a 2009 zoning change that took effect in 2011 required downtown business owners to provide pedestrian weather protection along at least 50 percent of the store’s façade.

The council gave the ordinance a first read July 2, and decided to reconsider the vote following an amendment to allow greater flexibility regarding awning material.

“I didn’t like the requirement to use metal or glass,” said council member Darell Lumaco, the only member who opposed the ordinance as presented July 2. “Some fabric awnings are weathered or look bad, but that shouldn’t be mandated. The more flexibility we give people, the better.”

Lumaco, one of only four council members at the July 2 meeting, expected the updated ordinance would pass, but he said the requirement limits business owners and could slow economic growth downtown.

“Some people are interested in improving buildings, but holding back because of a mandate,” Lumaco said. “Whatever we can do to encourage people to update buildings is where we’ve got to be.”

Lumaco added that making the street protections optional would further the city’s effort to revitalize its downtown district.

Antonini and other industry experts agree.

Michele Reeves, principal at CIVILIS Consultants, points to Gimre’s Shoes at 256 E. Main Street as a prime example of her belief that an awning isn’t right for everybody. About a year ago, owner Jon Gimre had just removed his weather-worn fabric awning when Reeves arrived with Metro’s downtown revitalization presentation and tips.

“She said to get rid of awnings while we’re knee-deep in quotes for a replacement,” Gimre recalled.

He and about 50 others attended a seminar, part of a seven-month series hosted by Metro, that gathered on-scene data through tours and talks and then presented improvement plans for downtown Hillsboro, Lake Oswego, Forest Grove and other communities.

Reeves saw potential in Gimre’s blank canvas, and helped turn his shady storefront into an eye-catching advertisement with bright colors and sleek lighting.

Gimre said his business has improved, and no one seems to be miss the mildewed covering.

“Gimre’s is a good example of an affordable storefront renovation with a big impact,” Reeves said. “It was a great way to demonstrate these principles right in the middle of downtown Hillsboro.”

She still uses his before-and-after photos at other workshops.

Reeves, like Lumaco and Antonini, emphasized the importance of valuing function over form in the installation of awnings. She said they were originally intended to create rain-free shopping that would compete with the box stores and indoor malls of the 1950s — “but in the Pacific Northwest, rain-free isn’t gonna happen,” she commented.

Reeves said some businesses, such as restaurants and garden stores, make good use of their awnings to create outdoor rooms for customers and products, but others have little use for sidewalk space.

Business owners required to provide weather protection tend to neglect awnings, and the result can detract from a storefront’s appearance.

“All you can see driving by is the awning,” Reeves said. “And unless you’re selling awnings, that’s not very useful.”

Gimre said the ordinance itself is old-fashioned, comparing it to laws banning buggies from driving through town on Sundays.

“It’s one of those ordinances that isn’t really enforced anymore,” Gimre said. “It’s just not appropriate for today.”

Businesses like Gimre’s set the tone for downtown districts, Reeves explained, creating an identity for people to engage with while they shop.

While awning requirements are common across the country, she believes they are often needlessly limit businesses.

“Awnings are temporary finishes that serve a specific function,” she said. “They should not be legislated.”




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