Sandwich Board Signs Regulations Will Soon Be up for Debate in City

By Beth Treffeisen

In bright colored letters across chalkboard signs, witty remarks or inspirational quotes entice a passerby to stop, look in and see what’s inside. These free marketing tools helps many small and larger businesses alike to get shoppers into the stores.

In an effort to provide consistent rules across all neighborhoods and lighten the permitting load on small business, Mayor Martin Walsh filed an ordinance to make permanent the 2015 regulations that created a pilot program on free-standing signs or sandwich boards, at the Wednesday, July 12 City Council hearing.

“As somebody who has promoted businesses and restaurants in the North End, people need to understand that some Sandwich boards may be a little bit of an inconvenience that you have to walk around, but they are very necessary to promote businesses that might be off the beaten path, around the corner or downstairs.” Chris Haynes from CBH Communications “It’s part of city living.”

The ordinance gives small businesses the ability to have one freestanding sign of a certain size outside their building advertising products within.

This ordinance will also include rules to guarantee accessibility of the sidewalk and accountability from storeowners.

“This has been attempted several times in the past by the City of Boston officials  mainly because signage clearly prevented access for handicapped people and was heavily opposed by residents of the community along with several handicapped associations,” said Phil Orlandella, editor-at-large for Regional Review. “It was enforced for a while, but stopped almost as soon as it started.”

He continued, “Merchants didn’t like them moving the signs that provided them free advertising on public streets. It has certainly become a public nuisance again. Let’s see what happens.”

“They are critical because we are a walking city and they definitely work,” said Marie Corcoran the owner of Gifted Boston in the South End. “We usually put something on the board that makes you smile and want to come into the shop. It is a great tool to show people and invite them into your space.”

About six months ago, the Boston City Council voted to extend Mayor Walsh’s sandwich board ordinance program by six months to the end of June 2017. The goal was to push back the sunset provision by half a year in order to collect more data to evaluate the program and neighborhood impacts.

Councilor Josh Zakim, who represents the Beacon Hill, Back Bay and Fenway neighborhoods voted against the measure earlier this year because of problems that have arisen on both Newbury Street and Charles Street.

“Both are in historic districts and have narrow sidewalks,” said Zakim. “They also have retail stores on multiple levels which means they can have multiple sandwich boards out front that adds to clutter and creates an obstruction on the sidewalks.”

Zakim is planning to talk to both the administration and the Council about how to address the situation on both these streets. He said, “I’m optimistic we will be able to work something out.”

John Corey, who co-chairs the Beacon Hill Civic Association and the Beacon Hill Business Association Joint Charles Street Committee, agrees.

“That sandwich board sign renewal is a bit scary as they are popping up all over Charles Street and starting to be a nuisance as a visual blight and also blocking our narrow sidewalks,” said Corey. “Now each business feels that they have to compete and have a sign.”

Michele Messino of the Newbury Street League said that she has been working with Zakim to tweak the pilot program a little bit and clean things up for Newbury Street.

“We would like to see the signs placed on private property rather than on the public sidewalks,” said Messino. “They currently get kicked around and are taking up space from pedestrians. I think they can be a hazard.”

Messino said that on Newbury Street there is space, usually a flat sidewalk or small garden between the storefront and public sidewalk, where the sign can be placed.

In addition, Messino said, that she would like to see the aesthetic of the signs improved.

“We absolutely need these sandwich boards,” said Messino. “But we would like to get to a more uniform look. Some have paper plastered on them, which doesn’t do well in bad weather and some are written in chalk which runs off when it rains.”

Messino said that each neighborhood has its unique quirks and the regulations and rules should speak to those differences.

“We need to update the programming a little bit and it can be a great program,” said Messino.

In the South End, Corcoran said, it is a bit of a different story.

“Newbury Street is a destination place and you expect to walk up and down and go look into the windows,” said Corcoran. “But in the South End it is all so spread out.”

She continued, “We all have our own unique brand but we aren’t taking away from the historic look of the South End. It is one thing to have regulations on Newbury Street but for us it seems a little bit ridiculous.”

On a few occasions Corcoran said that her sandwich board sign has gotten a $50 ticket for the sidewalk placement, a steep price for someone trying to run a local business.

Corcoran said that she places the sign up to the property line, but it can appear that it is not flushed to the side of her building because it is recessed back. If she placed it right against her building, nobody would see it.

“It looks uniform with the other signs where it is placed now,” said Corcoran. “Everyday when I put it out I just cross my fingers and hope that this isn’t the day I will get a ticket.”

Boston City Council’s Committee on Government Operations has yet to set a date for a hearing on this matter.