The Back Bay Architectural Commission (BBAC) held a public meeting on Aug. 2 to discuss the revision and updating of the guidelines regarding signage. Present from the commission were Joe Cornish, Director of Design Review for the Boston Landmarks Commission and BBAC Commissioner Robert Weintraub, as well as three local stakeholders who gave presentations. Along with several other stakeholders from Newbury Street, the group discussed ways in which the sign guidelines might reflect a changing society.
The first presenter was Meg Mainzer-Cohen from the Back Bay Association, who gave a brief history of signage throughout the Back Bay, and explained the “Goldilocks” problem on Newbury Street, which includes signage that is too small, not retail friendly, and has “taken away from the retail vibrancy of Newbury Street.”
“We are handcuffing the ability of big companies to be successful based on our current sign guidelines,” Mainzer-Cohen said. She said that people are looking for a much bigger, more dramatic presence these days when it comes to signage because people are constantly distracted by their phones while walking up and down Newbury Street.
Mainzer-Cohen believes that umbrellas are a “very simple way of continuing to have modest signage,” and that the current guidelines’ prohibition off logos on umbrellas is “something that we should do away with.”
She said that in addition to branded umbrellas, she would also like to see directories, the allowance of letters larger than twelve inches, and the permitting of lighting sources on the face of buildings.
A big factor in the conversation was the sandwich boards that pepper Newbury Street, advertising the latest menu item or sale. While those in attendance believed that the information they provide is important, there needs to be a better way to display it.
“From NABB’s point of view the sandwich boards have been an impetus,” said Sue Prindle of the Neighborhood Association of the Back Bay. Calling them a “visual cacophony,” Prindle said that these boards, along with other types of outdoor displays, make it hard to walk down the street.
Michele Messino from the Newbury Street League said that these signed need to change because our world has changed, but she understands that sandwich boards give stores the ability to advertise what is going on. The storefronts on Newbury Street are set farther back from the sidewalk, so these signs are a way to grab the attention of people walking along the street.
“They are not safe sitting on public sidewalk,” Messino said. She said if the group was able to come up with some sort of directory stationary signage and better visibility, they could alleviate the eyesore and safety hazard that the sandwich boards create.
Prindle also expressed concern with not wanting the signage to overpower the architecture of Newbury Street. She thinks it’s important that the buildings keep their individuality, and that the street does not fall prey to a “mall sort of look.”
Prindle suggested the use of electronic directories so people could easily find their way around, as way finding was another one of her concerns. Messino said that electronic signs are good for certain things, but “still don’t replace good signs.”
Erica Aylward from Jamestown Urban Management was also present to discuss a proposed signage plan for its properties along Newbury Street.
“People don’t always know how to find our tenants,” she said. So she said that they went from building to building to ask each of their retailers what they felt would be good solutions to the common issues along the street, and their full plan explains each retailer and what they need/want.
She also said that the sandwich boards don’t “necessarily portray the high end aesthetic of Newbury Street; they’re all different as well.”
She said that she found that tenants do not necessarily think that the sandwich boards are the “end-all-be-all.” Mainzer-Cohen said that permanent signage, such as a frame board, would be safer because they cannot blow over.
Mainzer-Cohen responded to the Jamestown signage plan by saying that “I like that it’s not cookie cutter,” while still “creating some predictability for a tenant.” Architect Tom Trykowski said that “there’s different types of architecture on Newbury Street, so we look at this as a piece of information that would be given to a perspective tenant.”
After about an hour and a half of bouncing around concerns and ideas, Joe Cornish said that this is only the first part of this discussion around signage and that the group will reconvene for further deliberation at a future date. He suggested that at a future meeting there be some people who manufacture signs who can talk about what limitations new tenants have encountered.
“It’s finding some way that we can all work together to find a solution to some of these issues,” Aylward said. “I think that’s really wast our intent was here.”