The Back Bay Architectural Commission (BBAC) Signage Subcommittee met for its monthly meeting on Nov. 7, to continue the discussion on updating the signage guidelines, with a particular focus on what to do about sandwich boards on Newbury Street.
A moratorium on enactment rules related to the location of sandwich board signs on public ways in the Back Bay Architectural District is set to expire on Dec. 31, so the signage subcommittee made it a priority to hash out a plan for what will happen when the moratorium expires.
Right now, sandwich boards (also referred to as display boards) are allowed on public sidewalks which has proven to be an issue on Newbury Street, with many people concerned about safety and the boards being in the way of pedestrians. Guidelines that had been previously discussed at other meetings include that the “BBAC will now approve a standard design for display boards that will be reviewed and approved by BBAC staff with specific conditions that include: one per building, located on private property only, must be taken in at night, and approved by the property owner whose signature is required to complete an application for the display board,” according to a handout distributed at the subcommittee meeting on Nov. 7.
Additionally, the subcommittee discussed that fixed directory signs may be permitted within certain size restrictions, color and material are consistent with BBAC guidelines, and the building owner can dictate what is include on the signs and which tenants are included. If a building has a fixed directory, display boards would not be allowed.
Michelle Messino of the Newbury Street League said that she sees two obvious issues with this plan: the fact that display boards are not permitted if there is a directory, and that the right size and design needs to be agreed upon. She thinks the committee needs to listen to the businesses on the street, many of which say that display boards have drastically helped to increase their revenue.
Sue Prindle of the Neighborhood Association of the Back Bay has been a champion of safety on Newbury Street, saying that sandwich boards are a danger to people traveling up and down the sidewalks on Newbury Street if they are placed in the public way. “Safety should be a priority,” she said.
Messino said she believes every building should be allowed to have one display board in the public way, which would cut down on the amount of boards that currently clutter the sidewalks.
“We need something where they can change content,” she added. “Without being able to change content,” businesses are unable to advertise new products, sales, and the like, she said.
“There has been a long time issue of having adequate signage on Newbury Street,” said Meg Mainzer-Cohen of the Back Bay Association. She said that over the past 10 years, there has been an increased need for sandwich boards due to the issues with signage on the street. She said there is a “direct correlation” between the BBAC guidelines and having adequate signage for businesses.
One Newbury Street business owner commented that smaller stores with less of a following rely on sandwich boards to let passersby know what the store is offering, which is something that is less necessary for more well-known stores.
“I think we’ve reached a reasonable compromise,” said Mike James of UrbanMeritage. “It works well from a safety and aesthetic standpoint, and it needs to be an effective solution for the city, retailers, and aesthetics of this street.”
A representative from the JP Licks on Newbury Street said that he finds a sandwich board is “essential to our business,” as he is a store that is below sidewalk level, and therefore has less visibility. “A sandwich board makes a daily change in our revenue,” it continued. “We have monthly flavors that we change.” He said that the changes to the sandwich board guidelines are “concerning to business owners.”
Conrad Armstrong of the Neighborhood Association of the Back Bay said that “nothing should be on a public sidewalk,” and that there are “too many big plastic sandwich boards” on the sidewalks right now.
Joseph Cornish, Director of Design Review for the Boston Landmarks Commission, said that he hopes to get some money in next year’s budget for a consultant regarding the signage guidelines.
Mario Cabrera of Lincoln Property Company said that the “end goal of bringing in a consultant is critical” in this process, adding that he is in support of BBAC Commissioner Robert Weintraub’s signage proposal.
The owner of TITLE Boxing Club, which has numerous locations in the Boston area as well as one on Newbury Street, said that he struggles with visibility for his businesses because guidelines forbid him from putting a banner on the fence. He said that without more signage, people cannot find his studio.
Several other Newbury Street business owners agreed that more visibility is imperative, especially through the use of sandwich boards.
Allison DiCarlo, store manager at Tea Forte, said that the signs are very helpful to the business. She said that customers come into the store and reference things they saw on the boards. As the only Tea Forte in the world, “we would love a sign,” she said.
Overall, the stakeholders agree that more coherent guidelines are needed, but the success of the individual brands must also be taken into consideration when coming up with guideleines.
BBAC Commissioner Patti Quinn referred to Newbury Street as the “wild west of signage,” and said that “we need true guidelines that work for the entire street.”
Sue Prindle said that she is beginning to better understand the need for changeable signs, but did point out the fact that temporary signage boards are already allowed for periods of 30 days. “A lot of this will be worked out as we go along,” she said. “NABB heard a lot of complaints about people not being able to get down the street. I think this is a very reasonable compromise.”
BBAC Commissioner John Christiansen said a clear signage plan needs to be developed, as he fears Newbury Street will “deteriorate” if a quality is not created and adhered to. “There ought to be a way you can identify the things you need and make it clear what it is,” he said. “It shouldn’t be a proliferation that just confuses your eye.”
“This document is a compromise,” said Robert Weintraub. “We are not going to have a consensus unless all of the parties agree to give and take. This is a good compromise. We are not banning sandwich boards. If a landlord in their lease says that they are not allowing sandwich boards, then a retailer does not have to rent that space.”
Cornish said that a standard for these signs needs to be created so people don’t have to wait “months and months to go through the design process” with the BBAC, but rather have their boards approved through staff in a much quicker process.
“We have committed a lot of our time to getting this right,” said BBAC Chair Kathleen Connor. “I think we’ve come very far,” agreed Weintraub. “This is just a guideline. We’re trying to create a framework so people have an understanding. We don’t want to diminish your branding in any way,” he told the store owners.
“We support your businesses and we want you to understand that,” Connor said. “We want it to benefit all. That’s why it’s taken so long—because we do care.”
Cornish said that he anticipates the entire BBAC to vote on these proposed display board guidelines at the full hearing on Dec. 11.