Kenmore Square Businesses are Concerned Over Citgo Sign Landmark

It’s been over a year since the Boston Landmarks Commission signed a petition to begin the process of landmarking the famed Citgo sign in Kenmore Square.

Now, as the Commission is reviewing the draft study report, businesses have come out with major concerns over how these new regulations, including site views, might stem the progress of new development coming to Kenmore Square by setting height limitations on new buildings that might block the view of the Citgo sign.

“This is a very important part of the city that needs some development,” said Pam Beale representing the Kenmore Square Business Association.

Beale said that despite the city being in the midst of a building boom, Kenmore Square has mostly been left out, leaving some places that are still blighted. But, she said there are some good development projects in the works.

There are currently two large hotels slated to come to either side of Beacon Street, and Related Beal has plans to redevelop the former Boston University-owned buildings with office and retail space.

Right along the Beacon Street Bridge, ground was just broken for the major Fenway Center Project that will have 1.3 million square feet of mixed-use development with the second phase spanning over the Massachusetts Turnpike into Kenmore Square.

“The tail shouldn’t be wagging the dog,” said Beale. “The Citgo sign is out and in front of the community, but this is a neighborhood that has been waiting a long time for good things to happen. We have a highly invested interest in the sign, but we don’t want to remain stuck, especially at a time when so much good development is coming to the area. What good is that?”

The developers, Related Beal, who purchased nine buildings in Kenmore Square from Boston University, including 660 Beacon Street where the Citgo sign sits on top of, have some specific issues of their own.

Several weeks ago, Related Beal submitted to the Commission’s staff a set of proposed changes to the draft Study Report released in November. Many of the comments addressed the legality of landmarking a corporate advertisement.

“As was announced last year, we are putting in place a 30-year lease with Citgo, and we are excited to begin the redevelopment of this key block in the heart of Kenmore,” said Patrick Sweeney, senior vice president at Related Beal. “We are simply being proactive about language in the landmarks report to ensure clarity and prevent first amendment challenges and undue and unwarranted city liability.”

If, for example, Citgo stops paying rent or has a scandal (like Enron or the Weinstein companies), the building owner should not be compelled by the government to support Citgo’s commercial interests, said Sweeney.

With the current draft study report, if something like that happened, the building owner’s only recourse would be legal action, and that is something Related Beal would like to avert.

“We are proposing a building that will be respectful of the sign, but we wanted to bring this to your attention to figure out a solution that answers the concerns that are really real to us,” said Sweeney.

Related Beal and Citgo Petroleum Company own various portions of the sign and its supporting truss structure. The sign is operated and maintained by Federal Health Sign Company.

Commissioner David Berarducci said that Sweeney’s concerns bring up important questions such as if Citgo did go defunct, would the commission be able to grant the new owners permission to replace the lettering of Citgo with something like Fenway?

At the sub-committee hearing commissioners mainly focused on the scope on how much power they will have over maintaining site views of the Citgo sign across the city.

The public has been using the 60 by 60-foot square sign informally as a wayfinding marker since its construction in 1965.

This sign faces slightly northeast-to-southwest, and it can be seen clearly from the major arteries of Beacon St., Commonwealth Ave., Brookline St., Storrow Drive, Memorial Drive, as well as from the Charles River and Fenway Park.

The draft study report recommends that an area of 1,200 feet in radius surrounding the Landmark, with the exception of existing landmarked areas and undevelopable areas be designated as a Protection Area, granting the Commission limited design review over these structures to help maintain and protect the sign’s view.

One of the most critical views that the Commission would like to protect is along Beacon Street, which is a significant milestone for runners in the Boston Marathon that they are nearing the end of the race.

After viewing some renderings that included the proposed office building located where the New England School of Photography is now, the Commissioners expressed that they would like to see the proposed building lowered because it clipped the bottom portion of the Citgo sign from some angles. The current proposal has it at 112 feet, which is slightly higher than the current buildings there now.

“Even if they take 12 feet off that would make the difference for the view along Beacon St., which is really important for marathon runners,” said Commissioner Richard Yeager.

Another is when the sign glows in the landscape behind Fenway Park during baseball games. The draft study report points to the view from home base as a possible protection area, but Jonathon Greeley, director of development review for the Boston Planning and Development Agency (BPDA), had some qualms about that one.

Greeley said that if that view is protected, it could potentially set a height limit on a new building from being built in the parking lot outside Fenway Park between the sign and the venue.

Also, there is the potential of blocking new air rights projects coming in over the Turnpike if there is a height limit to protect the view of the sign.

Greeley added that the sign, which is visible from the first base side of the stadium, is not visible for most people watching the game. But, if you get up and walk around it is part of the experience.

“Part of what makes Fenway Park is that sign above the wall,” said Berarducci. “We just need to make sure we have a seat at the table when new development does come.”

Sub-committee member Lynn Smiledge said, “Ultimately it all has to be reviewed.”

There is going to be another draft study review meeting because some questions still need to be addressed. To be designated as a landmark, the sign must receive a 2/3-majority vote from the Commission and be confirmed by the Mayor of Boston and by the Boston City Council.

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