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An end to the technicolor chaos near Central Park

Crowning an 83-foot tall apartment building near Durham Central Park are massive block letters that proclaim the complex’s name: ATLAS. Imagine the sun on steroids, and sealed within a sign. 

The ATLAS sign, which spans more than 20 feet, is powered by color-changing LEDs. Until last month, the sign flashed in several different colors, bringing a little spirit of Vegas to the corner of West Corporation Street and Rigsbee Avenue.

BLUE! … 

   PURPLE! …

      ORANGE! …

          GREEN! … 

But, the neon nightmare is coming to an end. City officials found out about the flashing colors, and on Feb. 27, warned the ATLAS owners that they were violating Durham’s Unified Development Ordinance (UDO). The violation involves UDO Section 11.3.1, which requires a special use permit for signs in the downtown tier with “animated, blinking, chasing, flashing, or moving effects, including sign faces that periodically change to show different images or messages.”

The city had been clear from the beginning that the ATLAS sign could not bring its technicolor chaos into the neighborhood. The Durham City-County Planning Department originally rejected a proposed color-changing sign. Only a modified proposal for a sign “without variable color” was approved by Durham City Planner Keagan Sacripanti in October 2021. However, that didn’t deter the owners from attempting the disco show.

The 1-acre parcel at 614 Rigsbee Ave was formerly a used car lot. It quickly became just a flashier eyesore. The complex of micro-apartments opened in February 2022 as a way to provide more affordable housing. City officials thought that allowing higher density would be a way to stabilize home prices.

Today, the gaudy sign beacons Durhamites to consider leasing one of ATLAS’s studio, or one- or two-bedroom apartments. Each of the complex’s 171 units are designed with “space-saving” in mind. $1,200 a month gets you 387 square feet. (“Affordable” housing!) For perspective, the sign covers nearly 78 square feet, about the size of renters’ kitchens. 

When asked about the recent violation notice, ATLAS management declined to comment on the record.

The city’s Feb. 27 warning letter to ATLAS – a “Courtesy Notification of Ordinance Violation” – said it must stop the lights from flashing or face fines up to $500 a day. When The 9th Street Journal checked this week, the sign was a steady green.

At top, photos of the lighted signs from the City of Durham warning letter.