The signs shine from the tops of office buildings, their logos aglow deep into the night: State Street, Vertex, PwC.
But just what it takes to get a company name in lights on a Boston high-rise has usually been a bit of a mystery.
That’s about to change. The Boston Redevelopment Authority is working on a new sign policy, one that would formalize by early next year the agency’s often-informal approach, just as Boston’s building boom could bring another round of requests for prominent corporate signage.
“Quite often, when you go to other cities, you’ll see corporate names on top of buildings,” said David Carlson, the Boston Redevelopment Authority’s deputy director for urban design. “The general preference [here] is to not have a skyline dominated by corporate signs and instead to have a skyline that’s dominated by hopefully interesting buildings.”
Until two years ago, the number of office tower signs could be counted on one hand. There’s the granddaddy of them all: the Prudential Tower, in the Back Bay. There are the new kids: the headquarters towers completed roughly a decade ago occupied by John Hancock, in the Seaport, and by State Street.
Then Vertex Pharmaceuticals arrived. The biotech company relocated from Cambridge to a massive two-tower complex on the South Boston waterfront nearly two years ago. Vertex won city approval to put a sign on each tower, one facing the harbor and one facing the Financial District.
“Vertex kind of kicked it off,” said Shawn Hurley, executive vice president and regional manager of Swedish company Skanska’s commercial development operations in Boston. “There are a lot of people looking out their windows at that sign.”
Nike subsidiary Converse put its logo on top of its new headquarters near North Station at a prime spot overlooking Interstate 93 before moving in earlier this year. And last month, PwC’s logo went up on a 17-story tower that Skanska developed on Seaport Boulevard. As Skanska talks to possible tenants for an office building under construction next door, signage has become an important part of the discussions. More see the Vertex and PwC signs and want one of their own.
“It’s absolutely going to come up again,” Hurley said.
The deliberations come at an important time in the city’s commercial real estate cycle: A number of office towers are expected to go up downtown, in the Back Bay and on the South Boston waterfront over the next few years. This wave of construction could bring an influx of sign requests, as well as an opportunity to plan what the city’s skyline will look like for the next generation.
Carlson, on behalf of the city, is finishing a written signage policy for new construction. Typically, the agency allows an office sign only for a big employer’s new corporate headquarters or major regional operation. City officials negotiate the size and placement. In general, city officials say they are also open to signs atop of hotels, beacons that can help tourists find their destinations.
BRA officials say the written policy won’t differ much, if at all, from what has been general practice for the agency. “It should be written down,” Carlson said. “We should be able to distribute that and give it out to people so they understand where we are coming from.”
Agency spokesman Nick Martin said the upcoming policy still won’t be the final word. The new rules will be treated more like guidelines, the starting point for negotiations in many cases.
“It’s impossible to take a position that all signs are bad or that signs should always be permitted,” said Armando Carbonell, an urban planner at the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy in Cambridge. “It’s a delicate regulatory issue that requires some sensitivity to the evolution of the city.”
It’s hard to gauge how Boston’s smattering of tower signs compares with the landscapes in other US cities, but a number of cities have grappled with similar issues in recent years. In 2011, Seattle officials tabled a request that would allow Russell Investments to put its name atop its new headquarters tower, for example, and officials in Fort Worth last year discussed banning future signs on downtown towers taller than 10 stories.
Executives at State Street Corp. know a thing or two about navigating the sign rules in different communities. The financial services giant’s name now appears in several cities where State Street has a big workforce, among them London, Sydney, and Dublin. The next stop: Kansas City, Mo.
The State Street name has long been a skyline fixture in Boston, with the “State Street Bank” letters affixed to the firm’s former tower at 225 Franklin St. for nearly 40 years. The longtime presence of that sign helped give State Street the leverage it needed to put a logo atop its new tower in 2005, after the firm moved its headquarters to One Lincoln St.
State Street later wanted to put a sign at the top of an 11-story office building the firm moved into last year on A Street in South Boston. City officials rebuffed that request, saying, essentially, that one major building with a prominent sign was enough. The company settled for a more subdued, vertical approach.
Chief marketing officer Hannah Grove said signs can play a particularly important role in building State Street’s brand awareness, in part because the company lacks the broad-based ad campaigns employed by retail consumer banks.
“You see in many skyline shots, in B-roll footage, that State Street is prominently featured,” Grove said.
John Farina is hoping for a similar impact. Farina, the head of accounting and consulting firm PwC’s Boston office, said the company was willing to pay extra for its new office space to get the logo on the front. The sign is already a source of pride for workers, and it raises the local profile of the firm known for years as PricewaterhouseCoopers.
“When you land at Logan you can look over and see the PwC sign,” Farina said.
He quickly conceded, however: “You’ve got to know where you are looking.”
Carbonell, the urban planning expert in Cambridge, said city officials should be wary about being too restrictive.
He pointed to the Citgo sign that dominates Kenmore Square. It’s hard to imagine writing rules that would have encouraged a sign like that. “But it has established itself in the urban landscape as a very important landmark,” Carbonell said.
Cambridge architect Hubert Murray said more signs could clutter the skyline. He pointed to the John Hancock Tower at 200 Clarendon St. The life insurer is no longer there, and the building’s owner has stopped using the name. But people still call it the Hancock. It never had a sign on top. There was never a need for one.
“Everyone knows which one is the John Hancock building,” Murray said. “My feeling is that the architecture should speak for itself. It’s barking too loud, if you have signs visible from afar.”
Jon Chesto can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @jonchesto.