Zoning Conflict Heats Up In Cambridge

Charles River near Cambridge, MAExiting the Trader Joe’s near my home in Cambridge recently, I was approached by an intense man who asked: “Are you a registered voter in Cambridge?” He was collecting signatures for a petition that would put a recent zoning amendment adopted by the City Council on the ballot for a referendum. The City Council was “selling out,” he explained, to “corporate interests.”

In fact, this very issue has sparked dozens of articles in local blogs and newspapers in the past few months, even provoking an editorial in the Boston Globe. In fact, the group asking for my signature succeeded in collecting the signatures of 11,461 registered voters — fully 18% of all voters in the entire city — within less than a month of the final City Council vote. The effort to overturn the proposal involves a “millionaire” activist, a direct mailing sent to all Cambridge voters with a creative, propagandistic photoshopped illustration (below), and even a hired PR consultant.

What was the issue? Maybe it is an up-zoning of low-density neighborhoods? A change to allow industry in residential districts? In notoriously liberal Cambridge, maybe a change that would decrease housing affordability? None of the above. The conflict is about the city’s sign ordinance. Like any good public dispute, it either boils down to conflicting idiosyncratic private interests or a general issue needing a new policy, depending on your point of view.

Microsoft Building at One Memorial Drive in CambridgeCritics argue the dispute boils down to a specific issue. One Memorial Drive (left), a tall commercial building on the Charles River, is half occupied by the Microsoft New England Research & Development Center. According to the Cambridge Chronicle, the company would like to install a sign on the building. However, the building is outside of the special Kendall Square zoning district where building signs are allowed, and probably couldn’t prove hardship to get a zoning variance. Phillip Ragon is a CEO of another corporate tenant, Intersystems, who opposes the sign on the building. He has admitted to funding the opposition, but claims the popular opposition is authentic. Supporters of the change, which include city planners and Tim Rowe, head of the Cambridge Innovation Center, argue it just makes it easier for Cambridge to celebrate its innovative businesses.

I will defer to the city’s documents first. Available on this webpage, they includes the text of the ordinance revisions, and five additional documents. The amendment to the sign ordinance allows businesses renting 25 percent space in building of at least 100,000 square feet to put a sign at the roofline in certain neighborhoods through obtaining a “special permit” from the Planning Board. The sign must have natural or external illumination, and be less than 60 square feet, or 90 square feet if the location was above 100 feet. In addition, the law would allow for a signage plan for an entire lot where the total allowable sign area could be allocated to one, larger sign.

This map shows (in pink) where the new rules will apply, commercial districts in the east and western edges of the city:
Sign Ordinance Map

The organization “Save our Skyline” argues the following:

On September 27th, the Cambridge City Council approved an amendment to the city’s Zoning Ordinance. The new law – known by many people as the “Microsoft Amendment” because it emanates from that company’s plan to erect a sign atop the tallest building overlooking the Charles River – will lead to a proliferation of unwanted corporate signs along the Charles River and throughout the city. This amendment is bad for the citizens of Cambridge because it:

• Reduces the quality of life in our city.
• Represents a huge uncompensated giveaway
to big landlords.
• Harms small local businesses in order to help
big out-of-state corporations.

Although there was strong opposition at every public meeting held to discuss this amendment, the majority of City Council members chose to ignore public input and move forward with what amounts to the “corporatizing” of Cambridge.

The group sent a flyer, presumably to registered voters, likening the policy to a corporate giveaway:
Skyline Mailer

This anonymous comment in the Cambridge Chronicle offers another point of view:

The new sign ordinance modernizes an antiquated and inappropriate variance process. The changes originate from concerns of former ZBA members, city planning staff, and Planning Board members. They have been worked on for over a year and not in response to one building or one sign. The new policy is based on substance and facts not on corporate vendettas and spin. Intersystems was behind the orchestrated campaign to distort the issue due to their past conflicts with their landlord and co occupants of One Memorial Drive. They manipulated well intentioned groups like the Charles River Conservancy and spread misinformation. I am glad that six members of the city council did not allow personal vendettas to cloud over a substantive and needed policy discussion. In fact – the standards and criteria in the new Special Permit actually will result in smaller and less illuminated signs than nearly every sign that has been approved in recent years by a variance process. The council did a good thing and put signage review in the hands of design professionals and the Planning Board.

This image, provided by the city, shows the type of signs that would be allowed under the ordinance, although critics may be quick to point out larger signs are possible on tall buildings.

Building Identification Signs

The situation is no doubt made worse by embittered East Cambridge residents, captured by this comment on CCTV: “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.”

The debate will rage on until the issue appears on the local ballot for voters to decide, either a November 2011 or a special election. Local political observer Robert Winters sums up the options now facing the City Council:

It will be interesting, perhaps even entertaining, to see what happens next. The City Council could rescind their approval and, by doing so, look like spineless and incompetent political jellyfish. That may be their best option. On the other hand, they could let the storm pass and allow the measure to be placed on the municipal ballot in 2011 coincident with their reelection campaigns. Gone are the good old days of rent control trench warfare. We’ll have a municipal election dominated by propaganda about signs. There may be a $500 annual individual contribution limit for local candidates, but it will be sky’s-the-limit for a “Citizens United” type of campaign in Cambridge indirectly instructing misinformed voters who they should vote for based on one hopelessly overstated and relatively unimportant issue. Perhaps the safest option for the City Council would be to dip into the public trough and fund a special election on this single item safely segregated from next fall’s municipal election. In recent years, the Cambridge City Council has shown over and over again that incumbency protection is Job #1, so perhaps this is the most likely next step

What are we to take from this debate? Is it truly a petty dispute between tenants that has spilled out into the public sphere? Does allowing signs on private property constitute a severe theft from the public trust, akin to a Wall Street handout? Or does the anger represent deep-seated frustration with corporate power in general in our society, and the sign ordinance serves as a legible lighting-rod?


> City of Cambridge: Sign Ordinance Information
> Save Our Skyline
> Boston Globe: “Big signs threaten river skyline, but Cambridge can reconsider” (Editorial, 10/16/10), “Critics put city on notice over sign rules” (10/9/10)
> Cambridge Chronicle: “In Cambridge sign battle, a call for transparency and truth” (Editorial, 10/14/10), “Cambridge Election Commission clears way for challenge to controversial sign amendment” (10/20/10), Cambridge Chamber of Commerce denounces anti-sign group’s campaign (10/15/10), “Cambridge City Council passes controversial sign ordinance” (9/30/10)
> Letters in response: Cambridge sign battle is real, Terry Ragon responds to Cambridge sign battle editorial, Cambridge sign op-ed ‘refreshingly well written’, Cambridge council vote is how democracy works, More signs needed to trumpet Kendall Square identity
> Cambridge Day: “Sign ordinance takes step forward in defiance of ‘campaign'” (9/15/10)

Author: Rob Goodspeed