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Critics put city on notice over sign rules

Cambridge says it’s good for firms

Residents are angry about a zoning change that, according to the city, makes it easier for companies to affix business signs atop tall buildings. Residents are angry about a zoning change that, according to the city, makes it easier for companies to affix business signs atop tall buildings. (Yoon S. Byun/ Globe Staff)
By Meghan E. Irons
Globe Staff / October 9, 2010

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CAMBRIDGE — Residents on this side of the Charles River have long felt that their city’s skyline was off-limits, but a dust-up over what Cambridge officials describe as a minor zoning change has caused a major uproar here.

A zoning amendment that the city says makes it easier for companies to put business signs atop tall buildings has outraged residents, who have spoken out and written letters vehemently against it. But the City Council pushed the change through by a 6-to-3 vote last month.

Now a coalition called Save Our Skyline is organizing a peti tion drive to collect enough signatures to put a referendum question before voters next year to repeal the ordinance.

The group and residents say the new regulations will lead to too many lighted signs on tall buildings along Memorial Drive from the Boston University Bridge to the Museum of Science, cluttering the vista along the Charles River.

“This saddens me,’’ said Renata von Tscharner, founder of the Charles River Conservancy. “This makes me realize that something that I considered sacred and very important to the identity of Cambridge could be threatened.’’

City officials and business leaders say the new building identification signs ordinance merely simplifies a complex process and establishes firm regulations for signs that are more than 20 feet off the ground.

Under the previous system, companies that wanted to install signs on high buildings were required to apply for a variance before the Zoning Board and prove they would suffer hardship without signs. That process, said Councilor Leland Cheung, wasted taxpayer money and city staff time. Because it lacked clear standards, it also led to an inconsistent assortment of signs on buildings, Cheung said.

“I think there should be clear rules as to what should or should not be allowed,’’ said Cheung, who voted for the ordinance. “Some of the signs that are there now would not be allowed in the new system.’’

Controversy first erupted in July when the Cambridge Community Development Department proposed the zoning change at the request of the City Council. The initial proposal covered the entire city, but city officials scaled back plans, after fierce opposition from residents, to include only office and industrial districts, including Kendall Square.

Leading the opposition is Phillip Terry Ragon, whose multimillion-dollar privately owned software company, InterSystems Corp., has been headquartered at One Memorial Drive for the past 22 years. InterSystems leases half of One Memorial, and Microsoft Corp., rents the other. Ragon said the corporate giant wants to put a sign atop the building.

Ragon, who has been feuding with Microsoft and his landlord, said he does not want any signs there and has provided money to launch a campaign to stop the ordinance.

Ragon has also hired lawyers and a public relations firm to get his message out, and established Save Our Skyline, which has until Oct. 17 to submit signatures to put the issue before voters.

His group also circulated an artist rendering of a photograph in July showing buildings along the Charles with neon signs for Walmart, AIG, and Burger King. But, business and city leaders say, the photograph mischaracterizes the ordinance.

Some in Cambridge say that Ragon’s fight against the ordinance stems from tensions between his firm and Microsoft, a dispute they characterize as a landlord-tenant issue. Microsoft would not comment for this article.

Ragon, a longtime philanthropic Cambridge resident, countered that he is dismayed at city officials who, he said, have been dismissive of the opposition.

“At this point, I think it is an issue between me and the city,’’ said Ragon. “I’m outraged that they would even pass an ordinance’’ like this.

Corporate signs can be seen on other tall buildings in Cambridge, including ones for Genzyme and Novartis.

Supporters of the ordinance say it establishes a more deliberative permitting process through the Planning Board and creates guidelines on such things as design quality, size, and lighting. Under the new rules, signs cannot exceed 90 square feet on buildings more than 100 feet tall. Billboard, neon, and retail signs are not allowed. Officials say only a handful of buildings will be affected, and some might have additional restrictions because of historic and other regulations. The city says the new rules will be a boon for businesses seeking an easier process to market themselves.

“The office and high-tech businesses are large and important constituents of this city,’’ said Susan Glazer, acting head of the Community Development Corporation. “These companies give new energy to the city’s economy. We were asked to show that.’’

Business leaders hail the ordinance, saying it will help firms in Kendall Square market themselves like those in Silicon Valley.

“We don’t tell our story well,’’ said Timothy Rowe, chief executive of the Cambridge Innovation Center. “We need to market ourselves like anyone else. And in this case, we need to market Kendall Square as a global destination.’’

But Carol O’Hare, a resident and retired attorney, said the city is “trying to gussy’’ up the sign ordinance, which she said would lead to more lighted signs along the Charles.

“Once one sign goes up along the river,’’ she said, “there is nothing that is going to stop the next one and the next one.’’

Meghan Irons can be reached at mirons@globe.com.

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