BBAC Subcommittee Discusses Signage Feedback

The Back Bay Architectural Commission (BBAC) Signage Subcommittee gathered for a fourth meeting on Aug. 1, to discuss feedback discussed at previous meetings, hear a signage proposal from BBAC member Robert Weintraub and a presentation on streetscape codes from Selbert Perkins, as well as talk about next steps. The purpose of the subcommittee is to determine how to proceed when rewriting the signage guidelines for the BBAC, as they have not been updated in years and it has been determined that looking towards the future, they need a facelift.

To kick off the meeting, the group was shown photos from Old Town Alexandria, Va., submitted by Mario Cabrera, a property manager for Lincoln Property Company. The purpose of the photos was to explore other historic streets to see what options are out there as far as signage goes and what may be adopted for Newbury Street moving forward. General feedback included that these streets in Va., looked a lot more like Charles Street in Boston than Newbury Street.

“There are sandwich boards everywhere still,” said Michelle Messino of the Newbury Street League. “They still have the need even though people can walk right up to their storefronts.” The stores shown in these pictures were all at street level, unlike Newbury Street, which has stores set back and set into the ground, making visibility for retailers more difficult. There was a wide variety of different signage shown, from signs to flags, all which will be considered by the subcommittee when rewriting the signage guidelines.

Next, the subcommittee heard a proposal from BBAC member Robert Weintraub. “My proposal is a synopsis of the previous three meetings,” he told the group. One of his main points is that “any one-size-fits-all proposal should not be considered,” he said. “Everyone comes in individually for their building and gets approved,” he continued, which is the current process.

Weintraub laid out 11 different rules in his proposal, including that fixed directory signs may be permitted on a case-by-case basis in order to provide landlords with the option to provide signage on he ground for upper level tenants. It would be up to the building owner whether to use the directory for upper or lower tenants, but Weintraub recommended that they just be used for upper level tenants.

“I think the directory is more of a building-owner-driven vehicle,” said architect Tom Trykowski.
“It is a permanent piece of the fencing…and it’s not going to be inexpensive,” he said, as it will need power and have to be built. He said that in contrast, a lot of the sandwich boards seen on Newbury Street are being put out by store owners themselves, not the building owners.

“Having sandwich boards on public property is a little bit of a nuisance,” Weintraub said, so he proposed that they be “permissible within a guideline to be set by the commission and may only be placed on private property.”

The subcommittee briefly discussed this proposal, but decided that they wanted more time to look it over, so they will report back with more detailed feedback at the next subcommittee meeting in September.

“I think this is a good basis,” Messino said. “I would love to mark up and come back with comments before the next meeting.”

A presentation on sample streetscape codes by Jessica Finch of Selbert Perkins was given. Finch said that Selbert Perkins is a firm that specializes in branding, wayfinding and place making, public art and sculpture, and revenue generation programs.

Finch went through a presentation full of photos of existing brand elements, signage, and other elements from all over the country to give the subcommittee more context for what is out there and how more modern technology and signage can be incorporated into Newbury Street while still preserving the rich history of the street.

The photos got the subcommittee talking about what might be beneficial to Newbury Streeet, and one photo showed a structure made of several different cubes with way finding information on each side. Several subcommittee members thought this might be a good idea to show what stores are on each block of Newbury Street, which would help people better find the stores they are looking for.

“Part of the goal is to dispel to tenants and applicants that Newbury Street is so restrictive, so don’t even bother,” said Joe Cornish, Director of Design Review for the Boston Landmarks Commission.  The Commission as a whole agrees that people should feel that they can propose more modern or creative signage that they feel is best to promote their space, but still be respectful of the history the street is known for.

Members were asked to describe a takeaway from meetings thus far and what they think is an important piece for the new guidelines.

“My big issue is the clutter,” said BBAC member Patti Quinn. “I would start eliminating sandwich boards totally and then coming up with creative and artistic solutions to them.”

“I’m not sure if current guidelines are as restrictive as they’re played out to be,” said Sue Prindle of the Neighborhood Association of the Back Bay (NABB). Prindle and NABB do not support sandwich boards either, and Prindle said she does not support them on a public or a private way.  However, “I would support something that’s permanently fixed somewhere that looks reasonably decent,” she said.

BBAC member Jerome CooperKing agreed with Prindle and said he does not think the current guidelines are that restrictive. “I love the idea of branding Newbury Street,” he said. “That alone might be the biggest factor coming out of these meetings.”

Trykowski said he believes there are some holes in the current signage guidelines, one being that the new ones need to address technology. “It’s not going away; it’s going to become more and more prevalent,” he said. “The recognition of different sign technologies can help. It needs to be refined down to something that’s appropriate.”

He also said that branding is “really important,” and said that Newbury Street used to be the “Fifth Avenue” of Boston, but that’s no longer the case.

“It’s a living, breathing street and things change,” said BBAC Chair Kathleen Connor.

The group decided that the definition of temporary signage seems to be the cause of a lot of hangups with the current guidelines.

Amanda Hamedany, Director of Membership, Marketing, and Special Events for the Back Bay Association, said that  “we’ve had a lot of success with brands as conscientious landlords…and spent a lot of time finding what proper brands and businesses are for this street.” She said that there are a “lot of fun, funky new brands” coming to Newbury Street and being very successful. “These people are going to want personality for their store,” she said, and have it be “Instagrammable, fun, and charming.”

“This is a big undertaking, so let’s come up with a big idea,” Connor said. “We’ve got to dream big” and not include money in the equation, as it will create a pathway for a vision as the new guidelines come into a more polished reality.

For next month’s meeting, Connor suggested that everyone come back with feedback on Weintraub’s proposal, as well as read through the current guidelines and determine what is unfavorable about them so there is a basis of what to improve upon.

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