The Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority’s quest to embrace the digital age is bumping up against the defenders of Boston’s historical appeal.
The MBTA’s advertising contractor wants to install digital billboards outside five transit stations that would broadcast train times and service updates, as well as advertisements to generate revenue for the cash-strapped agency.
But preservationists are taking issue with plans for panels at two stations: Park Street and Arlington. They argue the advertising and lighting would be out of place so close to Boston Common and the Public Garden and violate rules about outdoor advertising in the city’s historic downtown.
“It’s just an inappropriate way to use our streetscapes, and we’re against them being right across the street from Boston’s historic parks,” said Liz Vizza, executive director of Friends of the Public Garden, a nonprofit that helps maintain the parks. “It’s commercializing a city street.”
One of the Park Street Station entrances that would be equipped with a digital panel is directly in front of a Dunkin’ Donuts, Burger King, and Capital One — each of which already has a large sign facing the Common.
The preservationists will press their case Thursday morning at a hearing held by the Office of Outdoor Advertising at the Massachusetts Department of Transportation. Other proposed locations for digital billboards are the Aquarium, Back Bay, and Haymarket stations.
Greg Galer of the Boston Preservation Alliance said he has no issue with placing signs at the other stations — but he doesn’t want the T to sacrifice the “historic character of the neighborhood” around Park Street and especially Arlington Street.
The billboards, each about the size of a large TV, would hang over the stairways that descend to the stations, below placards bearing the stations’ names. They would not be affixed to the iconic Park Street station entrances on the Common, but at the simpler entrances located across Tremont Street.
The T has been rapidly expanding digital advertising across the transit system, with a goal to increase the number of such electronic displays to 700 by year’s end, up from 250.
The panels are being installed by the contractor Outfront Media, at no cost to the T, which expects a sharp increase in advertising revenue in the coming years as a result.
Outfront on Wednesday did not respond to a request for comment.
The billboards would display station-specific information, such as train arrivals, delays, and other service alerts, as part of the MBTA’s latest effort to improve its sometimes confusing communications to riders. A handful of T stations have already been equipped with the outdoor displays.
“Displaying real-time transit information and special service announcements, the panels represent an important part of the MBTA’s ongoing efforts to improve its communications with customers,” said Joe Pesaturo, a spokesman for the T.
Vizza said the T could still provide riders with information if they installed the billboards inside the stations, but before riders pass through the turnstiles. She suggested that the T’s real goal is to capitalize on showing ads to drivers and pedestrians who are not using the transit system.
“We support the MBTA providing information to their riders,” she said. “We think they can provide for their riders and even provide advertising, but not on the city streets.”
The bid to install the panels at Park Street Station comes just over two years after a similar initiative fell through amid opposition from activists and some local politicians, according to minutes of past meetings.
Vizza said the panels should not be allowed because Department of Transportation regulations that prohibit outdoor ads within 300 feet of a park, while Galer said billboards at Arlington Station would run afoul of architectural guidelines for the neighborhood.
Pesaturo said that ads attached to “street furniture” such as bus stations and other infrastructure can be excused from the rules.