Proposed ‘Digital Urban Panels’ Meeting with Strong Opposition

A capacity crowd was on hand at the State Transportation Building on Thursday, Feb. 8, when the Massachusetts Department of Transportation’s (MassDOT) Office of Outdoor Advertising reviewed an application to install multiple “digital urban panels” at four MBTA stations.

Boston-based Outfront Media, LLC, represented by John Mahoney, the company’s director of business development, filed 12 separate applications with the OOA, including two locations at the Aquarium station – one at Atlantic Avenue and State Street, the other at State Street and Old Atlantic Avenue; four locations at the Arlington station – three at Arlington and Boylston streets and a fourth at Berkeley and Boylston streets; four locations at Back Bay station, with two at Columbus Avenue and Clarendon Street and the remaining pair at 145 Dartmouth St.; and two at Park Street station – one at 128 Tremont St., the other at Tremont and Winter streets.

The so-called “digital urban panels” would display advertising, as well as real-time, scheduling information for commuters.

John Romano, OOA director, said the signage was considered “street furniture,” rather than electronic billboards, and is therefore subject to different restrictions.

Rachel Thurlow of Hancock Street said she would like to better understand State Secretary of Transportation and MassDOT CEO Stephanie Pollack’s rationale for classifying the signage as such and Federal Highway Administration’s reason for supporting this claim.

In a joint-letter to Romano, Sens. William Brownsberger and Joseph Boncore and Reps. Jay Livingstone, Aaron Michlewitz and Byron Rushing voiced their opposition towards the signage proposed within the Back Bay Historic District, as well as on Arlington and Tremont streets.

“The proposed ‘digital urban panels’ would not be in harmony with the visual character of the neighborhood,” they wrote. “The proposed panel placements are also immediately adjacent to the Boston Common and Public Garden, two of the most visited parks anywhere. We should not allow digital urban billboards to interfere with the beauty and enjoyment of these parks.”

Livingstone also said he hopes MassDOT would reconsider the decision to place the signage on the Boston Common and Public Garden and pledged he would continue “working with [his] colleagues to stop the effort.”

In a Feb. 5 letter to Romano, City Councilor Josh Zakim objected to installing billboard at the Arlington, Back Bay and Park Street stations.

“These ‘digital urban panels’ would clearly violate the Back Bay Architectural Commission Commercial Guidelines, which state: ‘Box signs are inappropriate… Illumination shall be static or steady-burning; animated or flashing effects are inappropriate, as are televisions, projected screens, LED and any future technology which incorporates movement,’” Zakim wrote. “The approval of these applications would set a negative precedent, allowing the widespread use of electronic advertising on MBTA stations to endanger the character of our historic neighborhoods. The proposed electronic advertisements also appear to violate MassDOT’s own regulations on outdoor advertising, as all are within [300] feet of parks.”

In a Feb. 8 letter to Romano, Leslie Singleton Adam, chair of the Friends of the Public Garden’s board of directors, strongly opposed the proposed signage at Arlington and Park Street stations.

“There are opportunities for indoor placement of panels that can achieve the MBTA’s advertising and informational goals without the visual and light pollution of the current proposal,” Adam wrote. “Given the revenue projections, the negative impact of these signs amounts to selling Boston’s public and historic landscapes for a pittance.”

In a Feb. 1 letter to Romano, Vicki Smith, president of the Neighborhood Association of the Back Bay, voice her objection to the proposed signage at the Arlington Street station.

“When Outfront Media first proposed the Urban Panels in 2015, there was a public outcry against them and their detrimental impact on the adjacent historic structures,” Smith wrote. “It is disheartening to see an even more intrusive proposal presented only three years later.”

Romano said the OOA would take the applications under advisement.

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