The debate over the future of the Citgo sign is still quietly grinding on. Now it’s the public’s turn to weigh in on what — if anything — should be done to protect the fixture on Boston’s skyline.
The Boston Landmarks Commission has a hearing scheduled for Tuesday on its proposal to designate the famous sign as an official city landmark, which would help protect it from future development that might cause the sign to be moved, or block views of the oil company billboard, which for decades has lit up Kenmore Square.
It’s the latest chapter in a controversy that has lasted 2½ years, since Boston University announced it would sell the building on which the sign stands, along with several neighboring buildings. Not long after, it reached a deal for the properties with the development company Related Beal.
Tuesday’s hearing, and the Landmarks Commission vote to follow later this fall, won’t produce a final decision — Mayor Martin J. Walsh and the City Council would have to approve any landmark designation — but it’s a key step. After months of study, the commission said the sign should be designated as a landmark. In a 51-page report, it cited the sign’s artistic appeal, its status as Boston’s “only surviving ‘spectacular’ neon sign,” and its role in the city’s sports and cultural history.
“The sign has become a cultural symbol to the people of Greater Boston that goes far beyond gasoline,” the study said.
That may be, but officially making it a landmark it could hinder development in the neighborhood, said Pam Beale, head of the Kenmore Square Business Association and co-owner of Cornwall’s pub. She’s not as worried about the sign itself as language in the proposal that would preserve views of the sign, and the potential for a so-called “protection area” that would prohibit new buildings nearby that could block those views.
“That would mean freezing Kenmore Square in amber for the rest of time,” Beale said. “Why would you want to do that?”
Initially, the Landmarks Commission considered including a protection area in its proposal, but decided it would take too long to create one, said its chair, Lynn Smiledge. Commissionrs will vote on whether to recommend landmark status, she said, and separately launch the complex process of a protection area.
“It’s a lengthy process,” Smiledge said. “Once we realized we couldn’t pursue that in a timely manner, we decided to take a dual-track approach.”
Meanwhile, Related Beal is pushing forward with a plan to redevelop the site, on the northern side of Kenmore Square, with modern office buildings and the sign perched above. The company has reached an agreement with Citgo to continue the oil company’s lease, though the two sides are still negotiating details.
They do not, however, support designating the sign as a landmark, saying it would overly complicate a business relationship between Citgo and its landlords that has existed for decades.
“We believe the best way to preserve the Citgo sign is for the Commission to allow for the Study Report to remain pending, and to therefore serve as guidance and its agencies, property owners, developers, and the Kenmore Square community.” Patrick Sweeney, senior vice president at Related Beal, said in a statement.
This “will be successful for the Citgo sign, as the parties continue in good faith to finalize a long term lease to preserve the Citgo sign for the next 30 years.”
Still, there’s strong support for making the sign a landmark — which by itself would not prohibit future changes, but would give the Landmarks Commission some say in them.
The Boston Preservation Alliance, a community group, has collected 16,000 signatures in favor of a landmark designation.
Architects and some neighborhood groups have spoken up for it, as well.
The alliance’s president, Greg Galer, said many details need to be weighed, such as precisely what height the sign should sit at, and what might happen to it if Citgo — a US subsidiary of a major Venezuelan oil company — is purchased or goes out of business.
“This is a rather complicated situation,” Galer said. “It’s not just like landmarking a regular building.”
If the Landmarks Commission approves the measure, it would go to Walsh’s desk next. Through a spokeswoman, he declined to comment.