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Daniel Rubin: Liberty Place residents fight Unisys plan

You can understand why a corporation moving its headquarters to Center City would want to announce its arrival by putting its name in lights.

You can understand why a corporation moving its headquarters to Center City would want to announce its arrival by putting its name in lights.

"It's all about visibility and brand and clients," says Jim Kerr, spokesman for Unisys, which seeks to tack a pair of red signs two-thirds of the way up Two Liberty Place.

To the occupants of Philadelphia's ritziest new living spaces - which happen to be on the top of the same building - it's all about vulgarity, with a little fear of terrorism thrown in for good measure.

"Outrageous," writes Michael Beautyman, a lawyer who bought on the 40th floor. "A blemish" on the building, writes its architect, Helmut Jahn.

The need to attract businesses has collided with the desire to lure high-end residents back to Center City and landed before both the Zoning Board of Adjustment and U.S. District Court.

Letters on file let us look through some rarefied windows.

Richie Sambora, co-owner of the Philadelphia Soul and guitarist for Bon Jovi, complains that if the city approves a variance and allows the two 912-square-foot signs, he'll no longer be living in the Residences at Two Liberty Place - it might as well be the Unisys Building.

Commercial overload

Other companies will want their own signs, he says, leading to an abomination one could call Billboard City.

Or Times Square South, as Tom Knox, the multimillionaire who ran for mayor, puts it. "What will come next?" he asks, having sunk more than $8 million into a 7,600-square-foot condo fashioned from three units. "Huge televisions and brilliant flashing lights?"

Nancy Needham, of the Center City Residents Association, sees it this way: "To have a lighted sign on the side is about as bad as having McDonald's arches on the Philadelphia Museum [of Art] facade."

Arguments go beyond taste.

Sharon Pinkenson, head of the Greater Philadelphia Film Office, worries that a too-bright sign would make the city skyline less attractive to Hollywood cameras.

Charles Mouzannar, an engineer who bought a home on the 43d floor, argues that the signs would paint a bull's-eye on the sapphire blue-and-silver glass building.

Unisys, he writes, provides IT services to the military. "A prominent Unisys sign could potentially entice terrorists to target this building, believing that this is the Unisys headquarters or a structure solely occupied by the corporation."

Don't look down

Reading all this, I wondered whether the residents would even see the signs down below.

Knox says so. As do H. Chase Lenfest and Stephen A. Thorne.

But Unisys says no. Kerr, the spokesman, says designers spent months trying to ensure that the condos would be shielded from the LED lights' bright glow.

The signs, he says, would be fixed to the east and west sides of the building at the 38th and 39th floors, which house mechanical systems, not people. The edges of each letter would be outlined in non-reflecting black.

"It's not the sort of building," he says, "where you can hang your head out and look up and down."

Unisys's lease allows it to put up a sign, Kerr says. But the Department of Licenses and Inspections denied its application, after which Unisys appealed to the zoning board. The condo owners hired Mark Aronchick, former chancellor of the local bar association, who last month sued Unisys in federal court.

The suit contends the signs would violate state law and the condo partnership's commercial lease.

Unisys, represented by Jerald Goodman of Drinker Biddle, has yet to respond.

Kerr says it's safe to say the corporation was surprised by the residents' opposition.

This is a new sort of conflict for Philadelphia, which doesn't have too many people wanting to live above it all. The rich are different from you and me. Better lawyers.