Stakeholders, Community Weigh In on the Fate of the Citgo Sign

The Boston Landmarks Commission (BLC) held a public hearing on Oct. 9 to present the study report for the Citgo Sign and gather public comment. There was no vote on the designation at this hearing.

Todd Satter, staff architect for the BLC, presented a summary of the study report to a packed room full of stakeholders, community members, and reporters. Satter said that the Citgo Sign is roughly 60 square feet and sits on top of the building at 660 Beacon St. He said that it “represents an era of American history,” and has “become a vital part of Boston’s skyline.”

The sign has also become an “emblem” of the Boston Marathon, used by runners to mark how close they are to the finish line, as well as a symbol for Fenway Park, Satter said.

He added that the Citgo Sign is a prominent feature of the Imagine Boston 2030 logo, alongside the Bunker Hill Monument and the Prudential building.

Satter then discussed sevaeral criteria that the sign meets for Landmark designation, including the fact that it “…represents some important aspect of the cultural, political, economic, military, or social history of the City, the Commonwealth, the New England region, or the nation,” he said. In addition, the sign is part of the long history of outdoor signage, “spectacular signage,” in particular. “Over the past 53 years, the sign has also transcended its original context,” and has become a symbol of Boston.

“This interactive quality has established the Citgo Sign as an important cultural resource in the City of Boston and beyond,” Satter said.

He said that the staff off the BLC recommend that the “specified exterior features of the Citgo Sign” be designated as a landmark.

Representatives from the stakeholders were invited to make comment. A representative from Citgo said that Citgo stands by its previously submitted written comments.

Attorney Thomas Brown represented Related Beal, who owns the building at 660 Beacon St., where the Citgo Sign sits. He said that the sign itself is owned by Citgo, Clayton Trading owns the steel structure it sits on, and Boston University owns the land.

Brown said that while Related Beal is “committed to working with the city and the stakeholders” to preserve the sign, “we do not believe a landmark designation is the right approach.”

“We urge the Commission to continue the approach that it has followed until now.” He said that designating the sign as a landmark will create legal problems, and that it is “first and foremost an advertisement.”

Brown said designating the Citgo Sign as a landmark would require Related Beal to advertise for Citgo even if they “fall out of the picture.” He added that the sign would have to continue to occupy physical space on Related Beal’s building. The Citgo Sign is also subject to regulations governing roadside signage, he said. It is required to have a permit, which is reviewed annually, and MassDOT’s laws would conflict with the landmark designation should they request it be taken down.

“We see no reason why it is necessary to trigger a legal dispute,” Brown said. “This commercial relationship has been successful for a half a century, and will continue to be.”

Alex Zadick represented the Trustees of Boston University. “While BU appreciates all of your efforts, we ask that you exercise your discretion,” Zadick told the Commission.

He outlined three specific issues that would come with landmarking the Citgo Sign. First were the legal issues that Brown had mentioned. Second were “complex policy issues.” Zadick said that the Citgo Sign is a “very large and valuable commercial advertisement that sits on a third party’s property.” He said that there has been no precedent for something like this to be designated as a historic landmark.

“We urge the commission to consider how signs cited in the report were paid for,” he said, calling them “dramatically different than what’s being proposed here.”

Thirdly, he talked about the “practical consideration.” He said that the sign will continue to be paid for by commercial interests, which “keeps the sign in place for the foreseeable future,” and they have “no reason to believe they won’t continue to take care of the sign,” he said.

“Now is not the right time to designate the sign as a landmark,” he said.

Greg Galer, executive director of the Boston Preservation Alliance, spoke in support of landmarking the sign. “I’d ask you to find any symbol more prolific,” he told the Commission. “Naturally, culturally, the sign is of Boston. “It’s as much a literal landmark as anything I can think of.”

He said that the Boston Preservation Alliance has received over 16,000 signatures of support on a petition that they started. “We urge this process to move forward—the vast majority of Bostonians want this symbol protected,” he said.

Pam Beale, who has been active in Kenmore Square for over 45 years, does not want to see the Citgo Sign be designated as a landmark. Terri North, president of the Kenmore Residents Group, agrees. “The Citgo Sign is not owned by the City of Boston, but instead a country with enormous financial problems,” she said. If the sign is designated as a landmark, “Citgo will have no incentive to repair and maintain the sign,” she said.

“Nothing of substance has changed since the last time the landmark status was turned down,” she said, which was in the 1980s.

Resident Isa Zimmerman said she looks at the sign everyday and even had a kinetic artist create a 3-by-6-foot replica of the Citgo Sign that sits in her living room.

Other residents also spoke about its importance to Bostonians and how they would like to see it be viewed in other ways besides commercial.

After the testimony, BLC Chair Lynn Smiledge talked about the next steps. She said that written statements may be submitted until three working days from this hearing, so as of Friday, Oct. 12, at 5 p.m., the hearing will be officially closed. She said that no emailed testimonies may be submitted.

BLC staff will then review the testimony, and any potential amendments to the study report will be noted. After that, a date for discussion will be posted in advance on the Boston Landmarks website.

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