Our City Council will soon vote on a proposal to allow a large, illuminated sign for Arsenal Yards – effectively a glowing billboard with ten-foot tall letters – to shine from atop the 130-foot high-rise tower looming over the Charles River, its park and paths. The proposal was written by the developer of Arsenal Yards. If the proposal passes, the Planning Board will be poised to give the developer a permit for the sign. Allowing the amendment and the sign would be a tragic mistake.
The path of the Charles River through Watertown is widely known as a rare urban gem. The state-owned Charles River Reservation in Watertown is equal in size to about 63% of all city-owned parks and playgrounds, comprising about 40% of all publicly owned open space in town. The City’s Comprehensive Plan calls it “the primary scenic resource” and “the most notable resource” in Watertown, saying its presence “offers a significant number of scenic and historic landscapes … considered to be of paramount importance to area residents, including views to and from the river.”
That Plan set a goal to “improve the environmental integrity of the Charles River while enhancing its recreational, cultural, and educational values for the community.” The City’s Open Space Plan said the river is the foremost of only three areas in town that “provide a suitable habitat for fish, birds and other animals …. the most significant wildlife corridor in Watertown that supports both fish migration and bird migration through the region.” That Plan described the stretch of river including Little Greenough as “a pastoral experience available in few other urban centers.” Our Community Preservation Plan found there is too little green open space accessible to the public in Watertown, and at its community forum, “open space was the top priority expressed by participants.”
Our city’s planning staff recommended in favor of the zoning amendment. They acknowledge that the sign will contribute to light pollution but accept the developer’s claim that it “would not be visible to any extent” from either Greenough Boulevard or the river. The developer stated that “obscured view” of the sign (presumably meaning light shining through trees even when they are in leaf) will be visible from all along Little Greenough and part of North Beacon Street. They do not mention the visibility of the sign from the river itself or from the parkland on the opposite bank.
The staff also seemed favorably impressed with photos of other shining roof signs offered by the developer as “precedents.” If you track down where these glowing “precedent” signs – Domino Sugars, Schuylkill Yards, Converse, Whoop and Puma – are, although they may be not far from rivers as the crow flies, they are in industrial areas, dense urban areas, and/or surrounded by other high-rises or parking lots. The placement of these other signs is in fact a warning for what a bad idea this sign would be at the “primary scenic resource,” “most notable resource,” and “most significant wildlife corridor” in Watertown. And as these precedent signs make clear, while the proposal features an “Arsenal Yards” sign today, there is nothing in the amendment that would prevent a “Chipotle” sign tomorrow.
We residents and our City government are all stewards of the river and its park, caretakers for ourselves, our children and future generations. Our predecessors once allowed the river to be used freely as a public sewer for private industrial wastes. We should know better than to repeat their mistake. We should not squander our common wealth for the benefit of a few.
If you agree, I urge you to write to your District City Councilor and the At-Large Councilors, at firstname.lastname@example.org, to express your view and ask to hear back from them. It’s not yet known when the City Council will vote on this amendment, but it’s unlikely we’ll get much advance warning, so it’s important to act now.