By Beth Treffeisen
Special to the Gazette
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 marketing tools help many small and larger businesses alike to get shoppers in the store across major shopping streets in Boston.
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 July 12 City Council hearing.
“There have not been too many complaints,” Michael Reiskind of the Jamaica Plain Business and Professional Association, said about the boards in the neighborhood. “They are most important for the stores just off of Centre Street – the main street in Jamaica Plain – that are on the side streets a block or half a block down.”
He continued, “The sandwich boards on the corners of Centre Street on the sidewalk for stores further down are the most important and have been successful to let people know that they are there just a few steps down.”
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.
Reiskind said that in Jamaica Plain the sandwich boards have definitely been popping up more and more. He said that they seem to be working as long as the storeowners place the signs in a space that continues to allow wheelchair access.
“The only time it is very, very busy is during Halloween when the kids are trick-o-treating in the afternoon,” said Reiskind. “There are hundreds of kids and I would say that is the only time the sidewalks are really overcrowded.”
Reiskind said that they ask storeowners to take in the signs during Halloween because it could cause an obstruction.
Other than that, Reiskind said, there have only been a few complaints about the sandwich boards not complying with the rules. He said the police enforce it only when a complaint is called in. Usually, the police just ask the store to take the sign in.
Reiskind said, “Then they do a little Waltz, and five days later the sign might appear back on the sidewalk.”
About six months ago, the City Council voted to extend 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 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 it is a bit of a different story.
“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.”
Corcoran said that Newbury Street is a destination place and you expect to walk up and down and go look into the windows. The South End doesn’t really allow for that because the storefronts are spread out.
“We all have our own unique brand, but we aren’t taking away from the historic look of the South End,” said Corcoran. “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 placement of her sign, 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.”
City Council’s Committee on Government Operations has yet to set a date for a hearing on the ordinance.