New Guidelines for Sandwich Boards Approved; Set to take Effect April 1

After a minimum of six subcommittee meetings, the Back Bay Architectural Commission (BBAC) approved guidelines governing display boards (also called sandwich boards) in the commercial district of the Back Bay. The proposed guidelines agreed upon by the subcommittee on December 5 were brought before the full Commission on December 12 for a vote.

A moratorium put forth by the city on the enactment rules related to the location of these signs is set to expire on December 31, so the BBAC had to come up with a plan before the deadline for the boards moving forward.

“We’ve taken a lot of time and had passionate discussions of the value of these signs,” said BBAC Chair Kathleen Connor, which included taking into consideration the “economic viability” of every choice the Commission makes. It was a long road of weighing concerns about safety when it comes to the signs with the needs of businesses.

“We’re going to be taking a look at standardized signing,” Connor said, which will be the next step in the process. The BBAC will be taking a look at display board examples and coming up with two or three options that would be desirable for businesses, the Commission, landlords, and the public.

The original goal was to add in guidelines regarding stationary display boards for this vote, but the subcommittee decided to focus just on the sandwich boards for now, seeing as the moratorium is about to expire.

The guidelines that were approved are as follows: All current sandwich boards in the commercial area of the district would be banned as of April 1, 2020. Additionally, the BBAC “will approve a standard design for display boards,” which will be reviewed and approved administratively by BBAC staff with no public hearing process required, provided they meet the following: “one display board per twenty-five feet off building frontage,” the location must be on a private property (“locations on public property will be approved on a case-by-case basis at locations where it is physically impossible to locate a display board on private property”), display boards are only allowed outdoors during business hours and must be brought indoors at night, and “display boards must be approved by the property owner whose signature is required to complete an application for a display board.”

Connor noted at the hearing that via letters, Martyn Roetter from the Neighborhood Association of the Back Bay (NABB) is in support of the guidelines, another person prefers no sandwich boards at all but “urges firm control” if they are allowed, and three others said they are a pedestrian hazard and/or that they are against them altogether.

“NABB believes that sandwich boards are a hazard on the sidewalks, particularly on Newbury St.,” said Sue Prindle of NABB, who participated in the subcommittee meetings. She and NABB believe that the final proposal is a “sensitive and balanced solution,” and urged the Commission to support it.

Elliott Laffer, also from NABB, said he commends the work of the subcommittee, as “we need to maintain commerce on Newbury St.,” and “we need to make the residential and commercial pieces work together.” He added that all public sandwich boards need to be removed from the public way, as “it’s a very narrow sidewalk. If you’re pushing a stroller or you’re otherwise impaired,” he said, “having a sign there makes it almost impossible for people to get by.”

Meg Mainzer-Cohen of the Back Bay Association also attended and participated in the subcommittee meetings. “The Back Bay Association has had a tremendous evolution in how we view sandwich boards,” she said. “We went from ‘they are mandatory’ to ‘see how it’s important to have adequate signage on buildings. We found that many retailers did not want sandwich boards.”

A resident who frequents Newbury St. on foot said that she “applauds” the Commission for what they are doing and she does not believe the sandwich boards are “necessary,” as “they are dangerous and tough to move around,” she said.

Michelle Messino of the Newbury Street League said she has received input from “retailers who feel they need a display board to get across to the public a sale or a new product” that cannot be accomplished through better signage on the building. She said that there is “no doubt” that safety issues and aesthetics are things that need to be addressed, but these new guidelines will allow for improvement, which will in turn change the minds of some landlords who won’t allow the boards on private property, she said.

Several Newbury St. business owners came out in support of the proposal as well, saying that signs on the sidewalk help people find their businesses and learn about what they have to offer.

One business who said they have another location in Harvard Square where they are not allowed to have a sandwich board saw a “serious dip in business” from not having the sign, so he is in support of the proposal to “keep the aesthetic clean and sidewalks safe,” but will also allow him to advertise his business in a way that will be profitable.

Starting April 1 of next year, the guidelines agreed upon will be tried out for one year, and when that year is up, the subcommittee will reconvene to decide what worked and what didn’t, said Joe Cornish, Director of Design Review for the Boston Landmarks Commission. The eventual  goal is to get funding to hire a consultant in order to revise all signage guidelines in the district, he added.

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