LETTER: Council Should Reject Proposal to Allow Large Illuminated Sign at Arsenal Yards

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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 citycouncilors@watertown-ma.gov, 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.

Jonathan Bockian
Watertown Resident

20 thoughts on “LETTER: Council Should Reject Proposal to Allow Large Illuminated Sign at Arsenal Yards

  1. Taxpayers have spent millions of dollars to clean up the Charles River, which was for decades an industrial dump. Now, a developer wants to despoil the riverscape with visual pollution? That is counter to any reasonable concept of contemporary environmental protection, and should not receive any government permission.

  2. If the Domino Sugar “precedent” sign being referred to is the one in Baltimore, I’d like to offer some firsthand experience: I grew up in the suburbs of Baltimore. At night, from my front porch, you could see the sign 11 miles away. (For perspective, the JFK library is only 8 miles from Arsenal Yards.)

  3. The purpose of any sign is for it to be seen and a ten foot tall illuminated sign would be even more visible. Yet the developers say it “would not be visible to any extent.” Really?

  4. I urge everyone to please inundate the city council with emails asking them to vote no on this zoning amendment. When the west end garage was built at the Arsenal the neighbors spent months trying to get the lights turned down as it looked like Fenway park. Let’s not further exacerbate the lighting intrusion on the neighborhood.

  5. I am against this proposed signage by Arsenal Yards! This sign is not a necessity!
    Let us prevent our town ressembling any town with big lights or big signage. Please protect residents & animals from bright lights. Put more focus & energy into green space for all & benches. Add safe monitored areas for locked bicycles.

  6. I, too, am opposed to the sign. I can’t imagine anyone favoring it, except, of course, the developers. But as is almost always the case, the developers will get what they want.

  7. NO NO NO to very large and lit commercial sign proposed by developer

    I strongly object to the developer’s proposal for a large commercial “glowing billboard with 10-foot tall letters shining atop the 130-foot tall high-rise tower looming over the Charles River”, it’s parks and residential neighborhoods!
    We are a small town. Already, development has begun to impact the nature and quality of our community. I don’t want to live in a “company town”. I treasure our !dark skies!, parks and greenspace.

  8. To the City Council,
    How is this sign beneficial to Watertown residents?
    If it is not please vote it down.
    If it is, then please give us convincing reasons why it is needed.

  9. I vote no on this sign. It seems that the developers never know when to stop taking. The Yard has some nice aspects but not nearly enough greenery or open space. Now add to that light pollution. No thanks.

  10. The proposal for that sign is an outrage. It’s made by people who don’t care what Watertown feels like for those who live here. It’s made for people who make money here not for people whose lives are shaped by what the town feels like and and looks like. Someone mentioned times square and that’s exactly what this sign would look like. I feel this is one time when we have to go to the wall against the developers and the town if necessary. We have to stop this sign. A few people will make a lot of money and a lot of us will lose the sense of Watertown that we are striving to create with so much work and money and energy and thinking and endless waiting for the right things to happen. We can’t let this one go. Please write to your counselors on to the developer and let them know Watertown is not a commercial center in the sense that times square is or that the commercial centers in any large towns are I grew up in New Jersey and I used to climb a maple tree outside my house and see signs lit up in Manhattan all the way across the Hudson River which has some of you know is immensely wide at the point in New Jersey that I lived meaning almost to the New York City Bay Port. Brightly lit commercial signs are cheap and unbelievably invasive. It is possible to strike a balance between creating a city that’s livable and enjoyable and a city that has enough commerce that it’s tax base is always satisfactory. This is not looking for a compromise or a balance. This is looking for a few people to earn a lot of money and there is every reason to be outraged

  11. Thank you, Jon for this excellent, well writen letter. Adding illuminated signage to this already too tall building is over the top. You have motivated me to write my own letter to the Watertown News.

    This petition should never have come this far. The Planning Department should have stopped it in its tracks. Watertown City Councilors, please vote against this proposal. It will erode our quality of life.

  12. Just when you think the overdevelopment of Watertown has gone too far, the developers come up with a new outrage. For all the reasons mentioned in this thoughtful letter, as well as those in the many comments, this blazing sign should not be built.

  13. Time Square in Manhattan, with all its moving lights and dazzling displays, is a vibrant and exciting place to visit but nobody would want to live there. Why then would we consider bringing any of it to Watertown?
    Billboards an intrusion on our senses, an assault on our tranquility, and have no place in a residential community much less adjacent to a wildlife sanctuary.

    Who thought this was a good idea?
    Who let this proposal become real?
    Who is betraying the sensibilities of our residential community?
    Who is the turncoat who should lose all support from the people of Watertown?

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