The Pennsylvania Railroad, the Philadelphia National Bank, and the Philadelphia Savings Fund Society have big signs on Philadelphia high-rise buildings. Even though they're all as dead as Sunday blue laws.
Living companies like GlaxoSmithKline P.L.C., Aramark Corp., and Independence Blue Cross sport modest bright signs high above Center City. Downtown Wilmington, a corporate capital, is also lit at night by colored DuPont, Chase and ING logos.
So why shouldn't Unisys Corp., a profit-challenged government contractor with 30,000 workers worldwide, get its own red logo in light-emitting diodes on the 38th floor of Two Liberty Place, in exchange for moving its 225-worker headquarters downtown from Blue Bell?
"We think it would ruin the Philadelphia skyline," said Cigna Corp. spokeswoman Gloria Barone, which used to fill the tower and is still its major tenant. "We have about 450,000 square feet of office space in the building. We made a commitment a long time ago not to put our sign on."
Falcone Group of Boca Raton, Fla., which has turned a similar-sized chunk of the building into homes with breath-catching views and several-million-dollar price tags, is also against the sign. Residents are concerned it would mar Two Liberty's sheer blue-glass finish, among other things, said Falcone executive Albo J. Antenucci Jr.
The sign is a deal-breaker, said Unisys spokesman Jim Kerr. "The last thing we want is opposition. We're surprised by it. We want to move in the city and be a good corporate citizen. Visibility is a big part of the reason for moving to Philadelphia," he said.
"If we don't get the signage, we'd have to reevaluate our position," Kerr said.
Who's backing Unisys? The biggest one is the city Commerce Department, which worked to get Unisys downtown in hopes of stimulating high-end job growth, so Center City can still aspire to be more than a fancy bedroom community for the Acela set, or Williamsburg with subways.
Also pro-Unisys are the Utah investors who own a majority of Two Liberty and hold a majority of the board seats on the building owners' council, which voted 5-3 to allow the sign last spring.
Antenucci says council rules require a bigger majority; the partners disagree. He says at least two lawsuits have been filed.
The sign question is scheduled to stop (not land) Wednesday at the city zoning board, which would have to issue a variance to get a sign above the second floor. Meanwhile, Kerr of Unisys said, the Department of Licenses and Inspections wants a hearing into the matter.
A matrix of agencies. Dueling business partners. Long, costly roads to Yes or No. Welcome to Pennsylvania, which ranks with New Jersey as a home of Too Much Government, and Center City Philadelphia, where lawyering is the city's major enduring industry.
Unisys is, among other things, a reminder that Philadelphia is the cradle of the modern computer in the form of Unisys' ancestor, the Eckert-Mauchly Computer Corp. And it just might have grown into Silicon Valley if Penn administrators at the end of World War II hadn't inadvertently run J. Presper Eckert and John Mauchly out of University City.
And now? "We want to move in the city and be a good corporate citizen," said Unisys' Kerr. "The sign is our logo. It's not a billboard. It's not blinking. It doesn't project light upward. It's on the 38th and 39th floor, which are unoccupied. It's just in the center panel. We're very sensitive to the other tenants. Our engineers spent a lot of time designing this."
He sighed, because he's been repeating this all summer. "We're a responsible employer. These are high-paying jobs. We're moving downtown to build our brand. The sign is our logo - that's the brand. There has to be a reason for us to move downtown."
Too Big to Fail?
Looks like there's no free marketeers left in Washington, and not many on Wall Street, now that credit markets are all sticky and there's a recession in a presidential election year.
What if the government doesn't step in, and Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac have to stop buying home mortgage loans so they can afford to pay what they already owe?
"It looks really ugly," said Michael A. Kent, top-producing broker at Sovereign Bank's Villanova mortgage loan office, who has a lot to lose if the government-backed mortgage buyers pull back.
"Unlike some of the idiots I see on CNBC and read in Barron's, I cannot see how this country survives without the government-sponsored enterprises," Kent told me last week. "Right now they are virtually the only ones making a market for mortgages. If these two did not exist, interest rates would be up across the board."
How high? "Look at where jumbo fixed-rate mortgages are trading," Kent said. Jumbos, too big for Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac, have been running about 1.25 percent above Fannie-Freddie conforming loans, Kent said. Most mortgage rates "most likely would go to that."
That means an extra $250 per month on a $300,000, 30-year loan, at recent rates.
And more: If banks couldn't sell loans to Fannie and Freddie but had to hold them all on their books, "they would run out of money to lend. We'd have to put a sign up in front of the bank: 'We took in $800,000 in deposits today, so we can lend that much. Come and get it while it lasts!' " Or they'd have to pay private investor rates.
"People say, 'The taxpayer is on the hook. Let's let the Federal Housing Administration handle it.' But FHA puts more crap on their books than you can imagine. They don't [charge more for bad credit] until you get down to a 620 credit score, and they actually consider doing loans to people with credit scores in the 500s. If you have a score in the 500s, you simply do not pay your bills," Kent said.
"Despite all their screw-ups - some they did, some the government forced them to do - Fannie and Freddie are still the only game in town."