Business & Tech

How do signs get on Boston’s buildings? It’s complicated

DAVID L RYAN/GLOBE STAFF

Jeff Immelt wanted a headquarters sign that could be seen from Mars.

Or at least that’s what the General Electric CEO jokingly told a crowd of local business leaders when he came to Boston a year ago to celebrate the company’s decision to relocate here.

Good luck with that, Jeff. The Boston Planning & Development Agency is reviewing the company’s new sign as part of broader construction plans for its future Fort Point office, and the rooftop logo will have more earthly dimensions, maybe 35 feet in diameter.

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Still, the approval of a tower sign in Boston remains a rare gift, one bestowed upon a select few.

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And figuring out how the city’s powerful agency doles these out remains a bit of a mystery, passed along verbally. There are some basic tenets — the company must be a major employer; the sign should be tastefully done; the tower where it’s displayed is usually new construction. But city officials still won’t put specific guidelines in writing.

This issue has been a source of debate in City Hall since the early days of Mayor Martin J. Walsh’s administration. BPDA officials had said they would release a written signs policy by this time last year.

So much for that idea. BPDA director Brian Golden now says his agency instead will continue to review commercial sign requests on a “case by case basis,” albeit with some overarching goals. Signs should either be for “wayfinding,” as is the case for hotels, or to identify a major corporate anchor or headquarters. But the attempts for a written policy have been shelved.

Steven Senne/AP/file
While Jeff Immelt won’t get the GE sign that can be seen from Mars that he has joked about, the company will join the relatively rarified ranks of firms in Boston that have been allowed to place large logos on their towers.

“I’m very disappointed to hear they want to leave it so arbitrary,” said Michael Rubin, a real estate lawyer with Posternak Blankstein & Lund. “There’s no measuring stick without a policy behind it. Instead, it’s good old politics that can win the day.”

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Golden and his team recognize that this can be a tricky balance. It’s hard to anticipate every request that will arrive on their desks — just look at the unique “NB” above the Mass. Turnpike at New Balance’s new headquarters. The Citgo sign in Kenmore Square probably would never get approved today, and yet it has become a beloved landmark, one that Walsh helped save this week by refereeing lease negotiations.

There’s another reason to avoid being boxed in by a written policy: The promise of a tower sign can be a useful negotiating tool when trying to persuade a company to relocate or expand here.

Yes, guidelines could be written to allow for unexpected deviations. But then city officials could get flak for making an exception — such a pledge could be viewed as a sweetheart deal.

Of course, that possibility also exists with nothing in writing. That’s the way it has been for decades at City Hall. Former mayor Thomas Menino notoriously hated the idea of tower signs, and worried about the commercialization of the city’s skyline. Few signs got past Menino and his planning director, Kairos Shen.

State Street Corp. was one of the lucky few, when the financial services company hoisted its name atop its One Lincoln Street tower in 2005. But State Street was essentially grandfathered in: Its old Franklin Street headquarters had an elevated sign for decades. (That sign came down as the new one went up.)

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Even Menino was open to exceptions for the right company. Enter Vertex Pharmaceuticals: The big biotech firm moved from Cambridge to two new towers on the South Boston waterfront as part of developer Joe Fallon’s Fan Pier project more than three years ago. It was a big win for Menino, who allowed two signs on those towers.

“Building signage was typically hard to get, if not impossible in the city of Boston,” said Alex Randall, a partner at Goodwin Procter who oversees leasing and construction of the law firm’s offices. “Then Vertex came down here at the Fan Pier, and they were able to get a sign on the roof, which was a significant concession. . . . And then I said, ‘I want one of those, too.’ ”

Goodwin’s name finally went up on its new waterfront tower last fall. But it wasn’t easy. Randall said Menino initially balked.

Goodwin found a more receptive audience after Walsh became mayor, Randall said.

The shift in power at City Hall potentially opened the door for other companies. PwC, for example, opened a new office with a prominent rooftop sign in 2015.

“No one is coming to us because it says ‘Goodwin’ on the front of our building,” Randall said. “Nevertheless, every business wants to have name recognition, and I think the Walsh administration recognizes that and was willing to find a way for the leading businesses of the city to have that benefit.”

There’s perhaps no greater sign of that willingness than the approach city officials have taken to GE’s $200 million headquarters next to the Fort Point Channel. One of the signature elements of that project will be the big logo. It may not be visible from Mars. But it will remind legions of downtown office workers of GE’s presence.

“From a standpoint of culture, and who we are as GE, the signage is actually a really important part of our identity,” said Peter Cavanaugh, a GE executive who is helping to shepherd the project.

The GE logo’s prominence could also inspire “sign envy,” much like the Vertex signs did. That could make the need for a policy more pressing as the city’s building boom puts more corporate names in lights.

“I do like the idea of some rules and some guidelines,” said Greg Galer, executive director of the Boston Preservation Alliance. “The one-off approval bargaining I think ends up being difficult for everyone because it’s hard to figure out what the playing field is.”

Boston, MA 11/20/2015 Ð The Vertex (Vertex Pharmaceuticals Inc.) building at 50 Northern Ave in Boston, MA on November 20, 2015. (Globe staff photo / Craig F. Walker) section: Business reporter: Chesto Vertex
Craig F. Walker/globe staff
Former mayor Thomas Menino hated tower signs, but allowed two signs on towers Vertex Pharmaceuticals moved into.

Jon Chesto can be reached at jon.chesto@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jonchesto.