Marketing a High-Rise : Namewise, It’s What’s Up Top That Counts

Times Staff Writer

Symphony Towers.

The melodic name, given to the high-rise project when it was announced in 1985, seems to be perfectly in tune with the nearly completed, 34-story building on B Street between 7th and 8th avenues. What better way to describe the structure that has risen above and around Symphony Hall, home of the San Diego Symphony?

Try AT&T.;

The symphony will perform in the grand hall at the bottom of San Diego’s tallest high-rise, but it will be AT&T;'s logo up in lights on top of the building.


Symphony Towers’ developers continue to use the musical name to market their building, but, “almost invariably, buildings become known by the name or corporate logo up top,” according to Dennis Hearst, a Grubb & Ellis executive who is leasing space in Symphony Towers.

Born Under Different Name

In fact, many of San Diego’s buildings began life with a name that eventually fell by the wayside. Before signing Imperial Bank as a major tenant, Trammell Crow marketed the downtown high-rise as the “Parkade Tower.” Similarly, the Wells Fargo building began life as the Koll Building, and the First National Bank building was known as Columbia Centre.

Name Will Surely Change


Only time will tell which of the names--Symphony Towers or AT&T--will; survive. And leasing agents predict that Koll Center and Emerald-Shapery Center, now under construction, eventually will become known by the name of their major tenants.

Putting your name--or the company’s name--up in lights “is primarily a marketing play,” according to building industry consultant Sanford Goodkin. “But, in part, it’s a tremendous form of ego gratification.”

It can also be expensive, according to building developers, leasing agents and tenants. Most agreed that a sign on a downtown high-rise can be worth hundreds of thousands of dollars in advertising and marketing to a status-seeking tenant.

“People say, ‘Let’s meet at the Imperial Bank building or the Great American building,’ ” according to John Norton, an agent with Business Real Estate, a commercial brokerage house. “It’s free advertising through word of mouth.”

But, as Vito J. Guarino Jr., BSD Bancorp’s chief operating officer, learned recently, it’s difficult to place a dollar value on a sign.

‘A Fascinating Experience’

“We tried to get some people to give a ballpark idea of the relative value of a sign,” said Guarino, who unsuccessfully tried to acquire sign rights atop the Central Savings tower for BSD’s Bank of San Diego subsidiary. However, Coast Savings, which acquired Central’s assets after the troubled savings and loan was seized by federal regulators, last week put its sign on top of the tower near Horton Plaza.

“It was a fascinating experience,” Guarino said. “I expected that someone would be able to quantify it for me in dollar terms.”


Although it is difficult to quantify the value of a sign, economics dictates which companies get their names up in lights.

Developers will gladly turn over sign rights to a large, well-established company because that firm’s name can then be used to attract smaller tenants. “It helps to say you’ve got a Fortune 500 tenant who’s taking four floors and whose name will be up on top,” according to leasing agent Bill John, a senior office marketing executive with Grubb & Ellis.

“The tenant brings you credibility, and that’s what you’re looking for,” according to Norton.

Tenants can gain credibility themselves by being in a highly noticeable building.

Rule Went Out the Window

That was the case in 1984, when First National Bank agreed to lease space in the building that developer Doug Manchester had marketed as the Columbia Centre Building. First National agreed to lease space “with the understanding that we’d have sign rights,” according to Karen Brassfield, First National’s chief administrative officer.

In the past, sign rights were only awarded to tenants--typically financial institutions or Fortune 1,000 companies--that leased at least 20% of a building. But that rule went out the window because of a recent office building glut and a shrinking pool of companies that want signs, according to John.

The building name-change game is also fueled by older buildings that change their names after major tenants depart. The Chamber Building used to be the Charter Oil building, and the Union Bank and California First bank buildings will get new signs following the merger of those two banks.


Sometimes original names remain: Businessmen Robert Driver and John Burnham kept their names on downtown buildings that they helped develop.

And Koll Center “does not have any plans at this time to rename the building,” according to Koll spokesman Ben Schwartz. However, the name would change if an acceptable major tenant leased an appropriate space, he said.

Sandor Shapery, managing partner of Emerald-Shapery Center, recently argued that his building will not take on the identity of a major tenant.

Everything Has a Price

Usually, however, names change “if a client who wants 40,000 square feet shows up ready to sign on the dotted line,” John said.

“Everything’s got a price tag, and, if someone comes in tomorrow with the right price, I’d bet you’ll see it change,” said the chief leasing negotiator for one major downtown tenant.

Today, “you negotiate just like anything else,” Hearst of Grubb & Ellis said of sign rights. “Usually, sign rights will make or break a deal because a prospective tenant determines early on if it needs a sign.”

However, the wrong sign can alienate potential tenants. “If you put the name of a law firm or Big Eight accounting firm up top, you won’t get any other lawyers or accountants in that building,” Norton said.

That consideration will be more important as the financial industry consolidates and “building owners start to look around for names to put on top of their buildings,” he said.

Building developers, leasing agents and tenants continue to play the building name game despite more restrictive regulations the city of San Diego is developing to reign in the size, location and content of high-rise signs.

An Advertising Tool

Building signs are nothing more than an advertising tool, according to assistant city planning director Mike Stepner, recently named San Diego’s first city architect. As such, the city wants to “keep the signs small and not overpowering,” he said.

“Signs should be an integral part of the building,” Stepner said. “But a lot of times the signs are added as an afterthought.”

Signs detract from the obvious elegance of some buildings, Goodkin said. With New York’s Empire State Building and San Francisco’s Transamerica Building, “the architecture itself becomes the logo, and that connotes the tenant.”

Put another way, “Cheops did not have a name on the pyramid, and there’s not a name on the Sphinx, but as long as people can say who the tenant is, what’s the difference?” Goodkin said.

San Diego seems to slowly be moving toward smaller signs, with Stepner and the city Planning Department in agreement that corporate logos are more attractive than full names. Los Angeles is moving toward logos, and many cities in Europe and Canada have outright bans on signs, Stepner said.

Corporate newcomers to San Diego also recognize the need for getting their names up in lights.

“The visibility for us in the Coast Tower in downtown San Diego is important,” according to Coast spokesman Peter Summerville. “It’s important to have that signage because some S&Ls; are having tough times, and (the visibility) shows that Coast is one of the strongest S&Ls; in the nation.”