On September 27th, the Cambridge City Council approved an amendment to the city’s Zoning Ordinance. Below are answers to some frequently asked questions about the amendment and its impact on the city.
Why is a seemingly innocuous change to a zoning ordinance such a concern?
This amendment opens the door to branded advertising at the roofline of buildings, and to a proliferation of large signs – including illuminated, multi-colored signs – that would fundamentally alter the appearance and character of our community. In addition, the amendment represents a huge uncompensated giveaway to big landlords and it puts small- and medium-sized local businesses at a competitive disadvantage.
What changes are included in this amendment?
The proposal makes a number of changes to Section 7 of the Cambridge Zoning Ordinance, which regulates signs. Two of the new provisions, “Building Identification Signs” and the “General Waiver”, have a profound impact on what types of signs are permitted and how signs are approved.
What is a Building Identification Sign?
Prior to the passage of this amendment, the Zoning Ordinance permitted three types of signs in business, office and industrial districts: free standing signs, which can be up to 30 square feet and 15 feet above the ground; projecting signs, which can be up to 13 square feet and 20 feet above the ground; and wall signs, which can be up to 60 square feet (or less for smaller buildings) and up to 20 feet above the ground.
The amendment adds Building Identification Signs, which can be bigger (up to 90 square feet for tall buildings) and higher (at the roof line) than previously permitted wall signs. These provisions are limited to signs that identify tenants in buildings of 100,000 square feet or more. Further, the provisions are limited to buildings located in certain areas of the city – primarily East Cambridge and North Cambridge, and along major stretches of the Charles riverfront.
Why is sign height important?
Currently, the Zoning Ordinance specifies that the top of a wall sign may not be more than 20 feet above grade level.
For a Building Identification Sign, there is virtually no height limit: a sign can be located at any height below the roof of the building or on a mechanical equipment screening wall above the roof of a building.
The effect of this change is to alter the purpose and nature of permitted signs. Signs close to the street help pedestrians and vehicles locate buildings and businesses. A sign 50 or 100 or 200 feet above the street serves a very different purpose: it is an advertising device intended to proclaim the presence of a large corporation.
What is the General Waiver provision?
This part of the amendment provides a new – and much more permissive – mechanism for circumventing the limits on free standing, projecting, and wall signs. Suppose, for instance, that a building owner or tenant seeks to put up a projecting sign with neon illumination. Because the Zoning Ordinance does not automatically permit that sort of “internal illumination”, permission of the city is required. In the past, this permission would take the form of a zoning variance – something that the law intentionally makes hard to obtain and subject to a rigorous review process. In all likelihood, such a zoning variance request would be denied. Under the newly-enacted General Waiver provision, the situation is very different: the Planning Board can “waive” these restrictions and grant a special permit for a neon sign at its discretion.
The change is even more dramatic for size limitations. By way of a special permit, the Planning Board can authorize a single sign that is as large as the total amount of signage permitted on the building lot. An example will help make this clear. Suppose a 100’ x 200’ building is located on a corner lot. Under the Zoning Ordinance, such a building has 300 feet of “sign frontage” and can have a total of 450 square feet of free standing, projecting and wall signs on its lot. Under the General Waiver provision, all of this allotment could be used for one huge sign. The Planning Board could, at its discretion, authorize a single 300 square-foot wall sign – five times bigger than the previous limit – or a single 450-square- foot free standing sign.
What is the difference between a zoning variance and a special permit?
Under state law, a property owner can seek permission to exceed a zoning limitation by requesting a variance. The law sets a high bar for obtaining a variance, reflecting the fact that zoning rules reflect agreed-upon community standards that should be set aside only in cases of a genuine, special kind of hardship. These principles are echoed in the Cambridge Zoning Ordinance.
In some cases, the Zoning Ordinance enables a property owner to escape the provisions of one or more zoning rules by obtaining a special permit. In contrast to the specific criteria that are weighed in considering a variance, special permits are issued at the discretion of the special permit granting authority. (Under the recently passed amendment, that is the Planning Board.) Cambridge and other cities and towns traditionally have been cautious about where and how the special permit process can be used.
This amendment gives the Planning Board broad discretionary powers to allow sign illumination, height, size and number limitations and restrictions to be exceeded or waived, with only the most subjective of standards to guide the Board in determining whether a special permit should be granted or what sizes of signs to permit.
How can a zoning variance or special permit be challenged?
Once a zoning variance or special permit has been granted, it can be challenged through the courts. A variance can be overturned if the statutory prerequisites for the granting of a variance have not been met. Special permits, on the other hand, are largely discretionary. Consequently, efforts to overturn them seldom meet with success.
The bottom line is that, once granted, a special permit is highly unlikely to be overturned and it can become the baseline against which future requests are evaluated.
How will the Charles riverfront be affected?
Since Building Identification signs will be allowed on tall buildings along the Charles riverfront, the public can expect to see signs on those buildings as well. The ramifications will extend beyond the city’s borders, too, as everyone who looks at Cambridge from Beacon Hill, who enters the city over the Longfellow Bridge, or who visits the Esplanade for a summer concert or the 4th of July fireworks, will have a totally different view of Cambridge.
Can signs be illuminated?
Yes. Sign illumination restrictions are among the restrictions that the Planning Board may waive by special permit under the general waiver provision, and the building identification sign provision specifically allows signs to be either naturally or externally lit. Although the City Council discussed limiting the hours for which signs could be illuminated – giving some relief to residential neighborhoods – in the end they failed to do so, and permitted round-the-clock illumination.
Are there any color restrictions?
No. Signs can be permitted that are of any color, and multi-colored signs can be permitted.
Who benefits financially from this amendment?
As a result of this amendment passing, large buildings with roof-line advertising opportunities are more attractive to companies seeking to advertise their brand in a highly visible way. Landlords will be able to charge higher rents, in some cases reaping significant gains in income and building value.
How was the public involved in this process?
There were a number of public hearings held by the Cambridge Planning Board and City Council. Each one was well attended, despite the fact that they occurred during the normally quiet summer season.
Many people also sent letters or emails to the City Council. Some authors encouraged Save Our Skyline to share their letters and you can read these at www.saveourskyline.org/letters.
At every hearing public opinion was overwhelmingly against the amendment.
Are big signs necessary to attract large corporations to Cambridge?
It has been suggested that, without this amendment, high profile companies would decide not to locate in Cambridge and that some companies already here might decide to leave because they are denied a building sign. The facts don’t support this contention. Many international biotech and computer technology firms settled in our city before this amendment was adopted and they will continue to do so long after this amendment is repealed.
When asked why they come to Cambridge, high tech companies point to the depth of our talent pool and the ability to collaborate with our universities. Often, they speak enthusiastically about the quality of life here that helps them attract and retain the staff they need to build their businesses. Has anyone ever heard of a company identifying signage as a material factor in their decision about where to locate?
Where can I get more information?
The complete Zoning Ordinance (including this amendment) is available at:
The full text of the amendment is available at: