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Donald Trump just inspired Chicago to rewrite the rules on absurdly large building signs

Emily's iPhone

CHICAGO -- An iPhone photo doesn't do the TRUMP sign justice, which may explain why people outside of Chicago don't appreciate just how huge the thing is. In person, Donald Trump's 20-foot-high stamp on his new-ish hotel and condo tower in the heart of downtown Chicago lords over the city's river. It's half the length of a football field. It's visible through the South Loop from two miles away. It butts into the background of photos snapped by tourists who pose, as tourists always do, on the beloved Michigan Avenue Bridge.

As I say, you won't get the full effect, but here are some meager attempts anyway:

When the sign first took shape, one letter at a time over the course of several weeks earlier this summer, outrage began to build in a city that prizes its architectural views like Boston does its colonial character or New Orleans its jazz scene. Mayor Rahm Emanuel called the sign "tasteless." The skyscraper's architect, Adrian Smith, let it be known that he agreed. The Chicago Tribune's Blair Kamin blasted it, prompting a very bizarre feud — and an excellent Daily Show segment — wherein Trump himself called the Pulitzer Prize-winner a "third-rate architecture critic."

Now Emanuel has proposed an ordinance that would protect the city's riverfront from such "visual clutter" in the future. Chicago can't strike down this sign (the previous administration approved it). But, under the new rules, which would follow similarly protected corridors elsewhere in the city, building signs would have to be significantly smaller (in Trump's case, about five times smaller). They'd have to be located much closer to the rooftop, effectively out of sight at eye level. No Vegas-style flashing lights or neon. And only a building's principal occupant — using at least 51 percent of the floor space — could plaster its brand on the building. That means a company filling two floors of a high-rise can't pay a developer for that right.

If this sounds like a municipal overreaction — aesthetes running amok over property rights — perhaps it's unclear from afar what's really at stake here.

"What people don't recognize outside of Chicago is that this isn't just a debate about a sign," Kamin told me while we gawked at it together. "It's about the quality of civic space."

Trump's tower happens to sit at a hallowed junction in the city, where Michigan Avenue meets the Chicago River. If you're walking north toward the "Magnificent Mile," the avenue, which is narrowly framed by high-rises, suddenly bursts open before the river into a spectacular view of 1920s-era skyscrapers and their lovely, glassy modern neighbors. This spot captures Chicago's particular charm: It has the great skyscrapers of a New York City without the claustrophobic feel of Manhattan.

Stretching down the river, a few dozen towers are fully visible from their base to their roofline. And the whole view is decidedly not like Times Square. There are hardly any other signs in sight.

"It's a very Midwestern version of a metropolis," Kamin says. Into which Trump has brought "a touch of Atlantic City."

What also makes Trump's actions an affront to the city's asthetics is the fact that Chicago has embarked on a massive remake of its riverfront into a linear park meant to rival the city's other waterfront on Lake Michigan. This was always a special public space in Chicago. But it's about to become an even more important one, with even more eyeballs looking on.

Trump's tower itself is not a bad addition (Kamin assesses it as a "good but not great" building). It's just the sign that offends — because it's so huge, so in-your-face at street level; because the strange spacing of the giant stainless-steel letters actually makes it look like the sign says TR UMP; because the building wears that word like an unflattering belt.

Trump is claiming victory in the new ordinance, which would ensure that his sign has no real rivals. Kamin, though, figures that the building will outlive its brash developer, and eventually, his name will be gone.