HARLINGEN — After two months of suspense, attorney Ruben Peña has lit up one of the downtown area’s biggest electronic signs.
Now, across the street, Denise Sluck wants a sign, too, to advertise her gym on West Harrison Avenue.
But about a block away, Sharon Doucet thinks Peña’s 35-foot sign hovering over rows of old two-story brick buildings sticks out like “a big old thumb in the air.”
Meanwhile, Peña says he’s unclear about the city’s restrictions on advertising on the $100,000 sign he believes “will pay for itself.”
Last year, a city official mistakenly granted Peña a permit for the sign that was too big to comply with the Downtown Improvement District’s strict regulations.
At the time, the official didn’t know Pena’s office building at 222 W. Harrison stood at the edge of the so-called “overlay” boundary that extends the Improvement District’s regulations to the La Placita area, City Manager Dan Serna told commissioners earlier this month.
At first, officials mulled removing West Harrison and Jackson Avenues, from the railroad tracks to F Street, from the overlay’s protective boundaries just to let Peña put up his sign.
Then earlier this month, commissioners passed the first reading of an amendment to the ordinance that would allow bigger signage such as Peña’s sign along West Harrison Avenue because it’s designated as a state highway.
“We’re excited about it,” Peña said Thursday about his sign. “We’re testing the equipment.”
Now, across the sign’s big screen, he’s advertising “The Law Office of Ruben Peña,” Brownsville’s Charro Days and the city’s upcoming Ales & Tales Fest.
“We’re committed to doing community public service announcements,” Peña said.
But he also plans to advertise his expanding business.
“We’re making an investment to the property and making improvements,” he said.
Peña, who also runs a Brownsville law firm, said he’s taking down a for-sale sign that’s been standing outside of his building here.
“It’s a great investment,” he said of his sign. “I anticipate it all will pay for itself with people wanting to do legal work in our offices. We’re expanding.”
Meanwhile, at City Hall officials have outlined the city’s advertising restrictions.
“Only businesses that are currently operating in that building can advertise on it,” city spokeswoman Irma Garza stated. “Mr. Peña is aware and is in agreement.”
But Peña said he’s unclear about the city’s advertising restrictions.
“I don’t know what the restrictions are,” he said. “I haven’t looked at it yet.”
Peña said he hasn’t conducted a “legal analysis” on the city’s restrictions.
“I don’t want to make a legal issue out of it,” he said. “I want to be a good neighbor.”
Meanwhile, Peña, through former City Commissioner Jerry Prepejchal, has requested under the Freedom of Information Act the city provide him with documents including petitions which downtown property owner Bill DeBrooke submitted, documents and petitions the city’s commissions and committees have received regarding his sign, copies of city ordinances regarding the overlay district along with applications and permits for electronic signs.
“As we go down the road, I’m sure I’ll be visiting with the city,” Peña said. “We’ll see what shakes out.”
Now, across the street, Sluck wants a sign to advertise her business Iron Core Gym.
“I was a little shocked when I first saw it,” Sluck said of Peña’s sign. “I’m slightly jealous.”
Sluck said city officials told her she couldn’t put up a sign outside her business.
“When we first opened up we were told we couldn’t put up signs and I believe that affected our business a little,” she said.
But down the street at H&H Golf Carts, Sharon Doucet said Peña’s sign doesn’t fit into the area’s architectural scheme.
“When you drive through a town like ours and look at the continuity and the style of the town, it’s like a big old thumb in the air,” she said. “I’m disappointed. It’s too bad something like that went up. I think it’s very distracting.”
For weeks, DeBrooke has opposed city proposals aimed at allowing Peña to install his sign.
Now he hates the sign.
“This is the most obtrusive sign from the railroad tracks to the freeway,” DeBrooke, who helped launch the city’s downtown revitalization drive nearly 30 years ago, said. “I think the sign is pretty out of place. It’s embarrassing. It’s out of scale. Just because you have the right to do something doesn’t mean you ought to do it. The whole community lost in this deal.”
The city’s proposed regulations aimed at allowing Peña to put up his sign would comply with the city’s current laws governing signage sizes within parts of the city outside the stricter downtown and overlay areas, Xaxier Cervantes, the city’s planning and zoning director, wrote in an executive summary presented to commissioners earlier this month.
Currently, regulations require “the total area of all signs on any building face shall not exceed the amount of linear frontage facing the street (measured in feet) on which the building is addressed, multiplied by 1.5,” Cervantes wrote in his executive summary.
“The proposed ordinance would increase the maximum allowable signage for only the properties fronting a state highway (Harrison Street) to 3 square feet per linear foot of building facing a street, instead of the 1.5 square feet per linear square foot of building facing the street,” he wrote.