Who turned off the lights in Sydney?Neon lights in North Sydney, where the rules around building signage are different from those in Sydney city. Photo: Ben Rushton

Who turned off the lights in Sydney?

Kymbal Dunne

Neon sky signs once glowed across Sydney’s CBD and North Sydney but over time, some of the proud names which still stand are lifeless at night.

Is a city really significant if it doesn’t have lights? Not according to the skylines of Hong Kong, Singapore, Times Square, Berlin, Shanghai or many other global centres.

The buildings have become dark, two dimensional edifices – the names are still there but the electricity isn’t turned on.

So, what happened?

Sydney skyline at night. Taken for Fairfax 2006 Annual Report. Generic CBD, lights, electricity, Darling Harbour, Cockle Bay, office towers, buildings, construction. Tuesday 9th October 2007 AFR photo Louie Douvis AFR FIRSR USE ONLY SPECIALX 11111 The Sydney skyline at night in 2007. Photo: Louie Douvis

Well, neon signs are old technology and sky signage has changed. So too have councils’ views and NABERS and Green Star ratings have also made us more aware and responsible for wasting energy.

For the past 80 years, neon tubing was used to manufacture roof signs with corporate logos but the industry has since moved to long life, low wattage, light-emitting diode (LED) lighting.

So if a company varied its logo or name then the neon needed to be replaced and although the message remained unchanged for a while, it was possible its impact would fade.

Pic shows Michael Vavayis left and Jarrod Mortagh of Signdraft in Taren Point, moving the letter S after its completion which will make up the new neon sign for the ANA Hotel in the Rocks that is changing to the Shangri-La Hotel. 18th June 2003 SMH, NEWS, HOTEL SIGNS Picture by Dallas Kilponen/dak.Right: Part of the new neon sign for the Shangri-La Hotel when it was changed from the ANA Hotel in 2003. Photo: Dallas Kilponen

On top of that, councils have different development control plans (DCPs). The City of Sydney will allow only the major occupant or the building owner the right to have signage.

In North Sydney, it’s open to third parties with no connection to the building.

It’s like the contrast of San Francisco city where rooftop signage is almost non-existent and New York where animated signs burn brightly and fight for your attention.

North Sydney and the city couldn’t be more different in their regulations on the right to advertise.

What’s more interesting is that the signage rights sit as an income stream on most feasibilities or valuations, but these prices have fallen since we hosted the 2000 Olympics as global brands like Sony, Sanyo, Canon, Qantas, LG, Samsung, Panasonic are already well-established labels.

So has rooftop advertising reached its use by date? The answer is no, however it’s a combination of responsive signage, something easily changeable, and understanding that promoting is now over much shorter periods, plus a new approach to marketing. The development of a LED digital screen instead of a static sign gives flexibility to the advertiser.

In the future, the sustainability and the value added by signage rights lies in the acceptance by building owners of new digital technology as an enabler, by creating more short-term promotional opportunities.

The lights will start to go on again in the sky sign market in North Sydney; however they will not be the same as before.

Kymbal Dunne is director of office leasing at Knight Frank.

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