What Will the New Signage Regulations Mean for Cambridge?

What Will the New Signage Regulations Mean for Cambridge?

Since the City Staff went to all the trouble of preparing this map, I thought folks should have a look at it. People in my end of town, East, have been complaining for ever that We get all of the development, traffic, bio-hazards, noise, and unwelcome light from the commercial tax revenue engine that our city planners have built next to us. Well here it is in pictures. I live right in the middle of the white area in the upper right that is surrounded on three sides by the new (pink) or no (purple) regulations. Even without the knowledge that Somerville recently up-zoned the Boynton Yards area from Twin Cities shopping center to Union square to 135 feet in height, people in my neighborhood feel surrounded and somewhat besieged. If this were a map of military positions, we’d be in trouble over here. This is a map of where Building Identification will be allowed by special permit from the planning board. Picture 15The raptor like shape of the area to the east reminds me of the old Gerrymander map from an earlier century.

As I said in my last post, none of you genteel folks the central to south-western sections of our town need not worry about these skyline signs.

So what is it that we are going to get? there are several parts to the proposed amendment to Article 7 of the Cambridge Zoning Ordinance. The full text of the latest version is available as a PDF attachment below. This will certainly not be the final version. The Planning Board recommended several changes last night, and no doubt there will be more.

The CDD’s summary of proposed changes says this:

I. Signs in the Public Way. Signs in the public way (e.g. banners across the street, banners hung on
flagpoles, signs on bus shelters, A-frame signs) are defined as exempt from the provisions of the
Ordinance. This is the administrative interpretation of the current sign regulations. Such signs would
continue to be subject to City Council jurisdiction.

II. Building Identification Signs. This is a newly created category of sign. The proposed regulation
allows the Planning Board to permit no more than two wall signs on a building to be higher than 20 feet
above ground (the normal standard) and up to ninety square feet in area (that area is now limited to 60
square feet), after the issuance of a special permit, provided the signs meet specific lighting and design
standards. The total area of all signs currently permitted on the lot is not increased. [Applies to non-
residential district concentrations in the east and western portions of the city, where building
heights of 50 feet or more are allowed]

III. Signage Plan for an Entire Lot. This new provision would allow the Planning Board to waive, by
special permit, the individual dimensions and lighting standards imposed on wall, projecting and
freestanding signs if a plan is created by the property owner for the allocation of all sign area that would
be allowed on the lot. No sign in the plan could be located higher than 20 feet above the ground (the
existing limitation) unless some other regulation would allow it and there would be no increase in the
amount of sign area allowed on the lot now. [Applies in non-residential districts]

IV. Temporary Signs for Non-profit Exhibition and Performance Spaces. A new provision is
introduced to allow the now common temporary banners and posters erected by museums and
performance venues to announce their current exhibits or activities. Such signs, if meeting the limitations
in the ordinance, would be allowed for non-profit entities. [Applies citywide]

V. Corporate Colors and Graphic Images. A new provision makes it clear that such design elements
are to be included when calculating the area of a sign. [Applies citywide]

What does it all mean?

I. Signs in the Public Way.
This says that since signs on sidewalks and public streets are exempt from this article because they must be approved by the City Council, and their judgement rules.

II. Building Identification Signs. This provision is the one generating the most controversy. Basically, large commercial buildings in the eastern and western sign ghettoes will be allowed to attach 90 square foot signs 100 feet or more above ground, (and 60 square foot signs below that) which would identify a major non-retail tenant. The latest text says that tenant must be “occupying a significant portion of the building or identify the building itself. No one liked the word significant here. The Planning Board is recommending a 25% threshold with some discretion allowed on the low end I think. I believe the board also wants to raise the applicability threshold to buildings of 100,000 square feet of more. All of this signage would be at the discretion of the landlord, who could charge what the market will bear for the privilege. Are there first amendment problems limiting speech this way?

III. Signage Plan for an Entire Lot. This would allow large property owners to get approval of a comprehensive signage plan for the property from the Planning Board. Specifically designed with shopping centers in mind to streamline the process and consolidate the designs..

IV & V. These pretty much speak for themselves.

Why do I care?

Given the choice, I prefer not to be advertised at. I would prefer if my skyline looked less like the screen of an iphone. We’re already losing our views of the sky in East Cambridge, does the replacement have to barrage me with the message that I need to buy this or invest in that? Or this? Or this? Or this? Or this?

Over my lifetime, I wave been privileged to witness the drastic reduction in “outdoor advertising”. This nationwide movement was begun and carried out by citizens and governments who realized that the visual clutter and constant advertising pressure reduced the ability of citizens to enjoy their homes and surroundings, that it was ugly, that it detracted from perceived value, and that it “cheapened” the feel of an area, and reduced personal dignity and civic pride.

The latest (but not final) version is available below.

PDF icon SignOrdinanceAmendments2010Sept7.pdf34.16 KB


Thanks for sharing this map, Mark, and for sharing your perspective on this issue.