Sandwich Board Sign Regulations Will Soon be Up for Debate

By Beth Treffeisen

In bright-colored letters across chalkboard signs, witty remarks or inspirational quotes entice a passerby to stop, look in and see what’s inside. These free marketing tools aids many small and larger businesses alike to get shoppers in the store across major shopping streets in Boston.

In an effort to provide consistent rules across all neighborhoods and lighten the permitting load on small business, Mayor Martin Walsh filed an ordinance to make permanent the 2015 regulations that created a pilot program on free-standing signs or sandwich boards, at the Wednesday, July 12 City Council hearing.

“They are critical because we are a walking city, and they definitely work,” said Marie Corcoran, the owner of Gifted Boston in the South End. “We usually put something on the board that makes you smile and want to come into the shop. It is a great tool to show people and invite them into your space.”

The ordinance gives small businesses the ability to have one freestanding sign of a certain size outside their building advertising products within.

This ordinance will also include rules to guarantee accessibility of the sidewalk and accountability from storeowners.

About six months ago, the Boston City Council voted to extend Mayor Walsh’s sandwich board ordinance program by six months to the end of June 2017. The goal was to push back the sunset provision by half a year in order to collect more data to evaluate the program and neighborhood impacts.

Councilor Josh Zakim, who represents the Beacon Hill, Back Bay and Fenway neighborhoods voted against the measure earlier this year because of problems that have arisen on both Newbury and Charles streets.

“Both are in historic districts, and have narrow sidewalks,” said Zakim. “They also have retail stores on multiple levels, which means they can have multiple sandwich boards out front that adds to clutter and creates an obstruction on the sidewalks.”

Zakim is planning to talk to both the administration and the council about how to address the situation on both these streets. He said, “I’m optimistic we will be able to work something out.”

John Corey, Beacon Hill Business Association Joint Charles Street Committee, and  beacon Hill Civic Association board member, agrees.

“That sandwich board sign renewal is a bit scary as they are popping up all over Charles Street and starting to be a nuisance as a visual blight and also blocking our narrow sidewalks,” said Corey. “Now, each business feels that they have to compete and have a sign.”

Michele Messino of the Newbury Street League said that she has been working with Zakim to tweak the pilot program a little bit and clean things up for Newbury Street.

“We would like to see the signs placed on private property rather than on the public sidewalks,” said Messino. “They currently get kicked around and are taking up space from pedestrians. I think they can be a hazard.”

Messino said that on Newbury Street there is space, usually a flat sidewalk or small garden between the storefront and public sidewalk, where the sign can be placed.

In addition, Messino said, that she would like to see the aesthetic of the signs improved.

“We absolutely need these sandwich boards,” said Messino. “But we would like to get to a more uniform look. Some have paper plastered on them, which doesn’t do well in bad weather and some are written in chalk which runs off when it rains.”

Messino said that each neighborhood has its unique quirks and the regulations and rules should speak to those differences.

“We need to update the programming a little bit, and it can be great,” said Messino.

In the South End, Corcoran said, it is a bit of a different story.

“Newbury Street is a destination place and you expect to walk up and down and go look into the windows,” said Corcoran. “But in the South End it is all so spread out.”

She continued, “We all have our own unique brand but we aren’t taking away from the historic look of the South End. It is one thing to have regulations on Newbury Street, but for us, it seems a little bit ridiculous.”

On a few occasions, Corcoran said that her sandwich board sign has gotten a $50 ticket for the placement of her sign, a steep price for someone trying to run a local business.

Corcoran said that she places the sign up to the property line, but it can appear that it is not flushed to the side of her building because it is recessed back. If she placed it right against her building, nobody would see it.

“It looks uniform with the other signs where it is placed now,” said Corcoran. “Everyday when I put it out I just cross my fingers and hope that this isn’t the day I will get a ticket.”

Boston City Council’s Committee on Government Operations has yet to set a date for a hearing on this matter.

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