East Boston Main Streets Director Clark Moulaison has been vigilant about signage in his main streets district since taking over the post a few years back so its understandable he gets upset when business owners open up shop and do not adhere to the sign regulations he and the city have carved out in East Boston.
Recently a sign went up on Meridian St., which Moulaison points to as another example of illegal signage in the main streets district.
“Although there are many signs along this street which are definitely illegal and many never pulled permits this has to be the worst one ever,” said Moulaison. “We need to find a way to stop this madness. We try so hard to get businesses to adhere to the sign code and have worn out our voices and shoes. Every time we make some progress with one, five other illegal signs pop up.”
This year, city officials announced that the party was over for business owners who didn’t want to adhere to the community’s pleas or the Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA) rules on proper signage.
However, a lot of work still needs to be done and the city is becoming overburdened with keeping up with its crack down on illegal signage in the neighborhood.
In April the neighborhood’s signage task force met for its regular meeting to tackle the epidemic of poor and unattractive signage plaguing Eastie’s business district.
“We just want a uniform sign policy in the neighborhood,” City Councilor Sal LaMattina said at the meeting. LaMattina sits on the task force. “This will allow us to go to the licensing board or the zoning board or the BRA and say ‘this is our policy and if a business is not going to follow it then it’s not going to get a license to operate in the neighborhood’.”
The task force was Eastie’s first attempt to lay out clear-cut rules of what types of signs will be accepted or allowed in the neighborhood.
“It’s about having a community standard,” said LaMattina.
The first victim of the task force’s new no-nonsense policy was Sava’s Market on the corner of Bennington and Brooks Street.
A few years back Sava’s got BRA approval for a new sign and ended up putting up an unattractive Western Union sign. The owner then went back and applied for a Western Union license. He was granted the license but the BRA told him they would only approve the license if he did not advertise his Western Union business outside.
He did not adhere to this ruling and kept the Western Union sign up and this went unchecked for a couple of years.
“This was a case of the left hand not knowing what the right hand was doing,” said LaMattina. “This business owner got approval for a sign and then was told he could run a Western Union counter in his store but could not have a sign advertising it outside. This was only after the BRA approved his original Western Union sign a few months before. We have to do a better job policing situations like this.”
The owner of Sava’s agreed to take down the Western Union sign and put up a historic looking wood sign with attractive lights and work with the community on the changes and process.
“It has to be one business at a time,” said LaMattina.
The efforts of community leaders and groups like Main Streets and Chamber of Commerce to create a uniform business district that is attractive and welcoming has been hampered in many ways by signage.
Some businesses that open in East Boston, skirt the community process, do not participate in BRA design review and put up signs and window displays that do not comply with city ordinances. This, many believe, makes local business districts in Maverick, Central and Orient Heights Squares look blighted.
Two years ago, community and business leaders held a meeting to create a partnership between various city departments, business organizations, and elected officials, to improve upon issues related to commercial signage. This comprehensive approach, for the first time in the neighborhood, focus on education and enforcement as a way of beautifying the local business districts.
At the meeting the group touched upon areas of concern like business owners who are unaware of commercial signage and storefront regulations, that put up signs or blanket their storefront windows without proper or complete knowledge of city regulations, business owners who are aware of regulations but ignore them and do not obtain proper permits.
One of the biggest issues facing local business district is the fact there is no Master Plan or Community Standard on record as a guideline for the city when a new business opens.
This would allow the city for the first time to reference an official document during a BRA design review and make its decision on approving a storefront design and signage based on the community’s standard. If a new business does not comply, the BRA will send the business owner back to the drawing board and come up with a design and the proper signage that in line with the community standard.
As for the businesses that already in noncompliance of city regulations, the Chamber and Main Streets received a commitment from Boston’s Inspectional Service Department (ISD) at the April meeting that after the Chamber and Main Streets compile a list of illegal/non-conforming storefronts across East Boston, the two groups will go to them one by one to educate and advise business owners on the regulations. After a reasonable amount of time, ISD will begin issuing fines to businesses that still do not conform.
“It’s time to get serious,” said Moulaison. “Thus has gone unchecked for too long and it’s time to begin creating an attractive and welcoming business community.”