Big signs threaten river skyline, but Cambridge can reconsider


by Staff Writers, The Boston Globe

LATE LAST month the Cambridge City Council saw the light, but not in the way many residents wanted.

After months of rather convoluted debate, the council passed a measure allowing large illuminated signs on taller commercial buildings in certain parts of the city, including along the Charles River. It may be reasonable to make modest accommodation for commercial property owners and their major tenants. But the council well overshot the mark, putting at risk a precious urban resource – the skyline along the Charles.

Now opponents have collected over 15,000 signatures, far more than the 7,500 needed to put the change on the city ballot. Complicated zoning disputes generally don’t lend themselves to yes-or- no ballot campaigns. But the council can avoid a referendum by rescinding its decision. It should do so, and then consider the issue anew.

Signs identifying a building’s major occupant are common in the world of commercial real estate. Cambridge needs an orderly, predictable process for deciding when they’re permissible, along with guidelines to make sure they’re designed in a tasteful way. But by a 6-3 vote, the council ended up authorizing signs that would be too large – up to 90 square feet on each facade of a building over 100 feet tall.

Opponents say the zoning change seems tailored to benefit a particular company: the Microsoft Corporation, which occupies 50 percent of One Memorial Drive, near the Longfellow Bridge. Of course, there’s some self-interest among some opponents, too: Much of the funding for their vigorous campaign comes from Phillip Terry Ragon of InterSystems Corp., which happens to be the One Memorial Drive building’s other major tenant.

Broader interests are at stake, though, especially because the commercial buildings clustered around Kendall Square loom high over the Charles. Inevitably, the dispute has become a grand philosophical debate about the character of Cambridge and contemporary urban design. People on the other side of the river have a stake in this debate, too – as does anyone who commutes on Storrow Drive. And while some signage is reasonable, the beauty of the Charles is in its quiet blend of green space and historical and modern structures.

If the petition drive succeeds in obtaining 7,500 valid signatures, Cambridge law allows the city council to simply rescind the amendment. Taking this option would avoid a costly referendum campaign – and send the whole mess back to the drawing board, which is where it belongs.

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