Boston councilors, advocates hope to avoid ‘rampant multiplication’ of electronic billboards downtown

Boston residents and councilors worried about “rampant multiplication” of electronic billboards around downtown are calling for harder limits on where the eye-catching screens can be built — as they say they’re seeing more proposals like the one that was just withdrawn from Chinatown.
“It’s clear we need to have stricter control and regulations,” City Councilor Ed Flynn told the Herald this week after he’d spoken against the electronic billboard proposed for 31-37 Beach St. in his district in Chinatown. “I do see more billboards trying to be placed in residential areas. … For residents, it’s a quality-of-life issue, but it’s also a pedestrian and public safety issue.”
Flynn said he’d like to create more of a specific required community process for electronic billboard proposals, and he and City Councilor Kenzie Bok said they’d like to take a hard look at the issue in the coming year.
The city councilors and civic organizations are worried that as technology for electronic billboards — which are technically “forbidden” in most of Boston under the zoning code — has improved and they’ve become highly lucrative, the city has to be careful to avoid seeing something of a Time Square-ification of portions of downtown.
Opponents say the intentionally eye-catching electronic billboards are a huge distraction to pedestrians, drivers and cyclists in a city where traffic safety is already a problem.
The billboard in Chinatown was withdrawn without prejudice — which means the developers Media Vision, which didn’t respond to a request for comment, could come back at a later date — and another billboard from the same company has been floated for the Dunkin’ at 55 Causeway St. in the West End — both places where the zoning code forbids them.
Bok, whose district borders Flynn’s district right at the intersection nearby that includes Causeway and Merrimac streets, said she’s had several people sniffing around her Back Bay-centric district with visions of electronic billboards during her first year on the council.
“It’s time for the city to put down some clear lines in the sand,” Bok said, noting she worries about areas like Kenmore Square being future targets for the electronic billboards. Referring to the Zoning Board of Appeals, she said, “It does not make sense for us to be deciding that question through a game of ZBA whack-a-mole.”
She added of the big screens, “It erodes the historic nature of our neighborhoods.”
For the Causeway billboard, residents worry it would make a tricky intersection worse.
“One of the big problems in my mind is traffic,” said Jane Wilson of the West End Civic Association. “Imagine that corner having a huge electronic informational billboard. … It’s going to be distracting, and it’s not going to improve the neighborhood one bit.”
Ford Cavallari of the Alliance of Downtown Civic Organizations wrote in a recent letter to the mayor that he worries about the “rampant multiplication” of billboards. In his eyes, he said, the Boston Planning & Development Agency has begun to take a lighter approach considering them.
“There is clearly a weakening of the rules that we have seen, particularly over the last three years,” Cavallari said.
The BPDA said in a statement, “Electronic billboards are a forbidden use in the Boston Zoning Code for the majority of the City, and a conditional use on Lansdowne, the Seaport, and the Theatre District. All electronic billboard proposals must be reviewed by the BPDA and approved by the ZBA, regardless of the proposed location. There are currently no outstanding requests for electronic billboards.”
Cavallari said he’s open to allowing more locations for electronic billboards — as long as they are actually forbidden everywhere else. He added that billboard companies have tended to seek and receive postponements in front of the zoning board when community opposition shows up.
“You can just crush — you can just wear down — the resident opposition,” he said.
Bok agreed, saying, “I think the frequent deferrals and the one-off nature of how we’re handling this right now is encouraging businesses that are interested in putting these up to pursue the process.”

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