New Broadway Sign and Design Guidelines Head to City Council for Review

Dr. Deborah Wayne’s optometry shop has been on Broadway in one way or another since 1936, but in 2019 she’s hoping that new City guidelines and a store improvement program will help her shop – and others around it – catapult into the new century.

“You want to see quality businesses and you want them to look like quality businesses,” she said. “I think it’s a fabulous idea. It’s an old storefront. I have a storefront that doesn’t have any grates. We’ve been operating in one location or another on Broadway since 1936 and we’ve never had a grate. I’d do anything to get the grates off the businesses on Broadway. I think they’re ugly. I’m hoping that these regulations go through so I can take advantage of the program. I don’t want to take action and build something that isn’t in compliance. I’m ready to rip the front off my store. I can’t wait.”

She shares the enthusiasm of most of the business community on Broadway, who wholeheartedly support a set of design guidelines for the corridor, as well as a storefront improvement assistance program.

Downtown Coordinator Mimi Graney has proposed the regulations this spring to the Planning Board, and had a hearing on April 1. They will have a stop at the City Council again with a ruling promised in May.

“The goal is to be attractive and be maintained and lit well,” she said. “It’s also transparency of the windows. We’re telling folks not to have the big frosted glass and we would like the business to take down the big metal grates. In a lot of cases, they aren’t necessary because it can done other ways. We can meet the goal of safety and meet the goal of feeling safe and having an attractive façade.”

One of the problems, she said, is that the regulations for signage and façade improvements are woefully outdated – in some cases not allowing simple things like a blade sign. A blade sign is a suspended sign that faces those walking on the sidewalk. Because of the outdated regulations, she said, many store owners are hesitant to make upgrades that could be a code violation.

“The downtown has always been a bunch of things, but the rules never changed so it means the businesses can’t update or maintain their facades,” she added.

Alberto Calvo of Stop & Compare Supermarket said they improved their façade and sign a few years ago, and it made a huge difference. He’s excited to see that happen throughout the business district.

“We’re absolutely excited to see movement toward the revamping of sign ordinances,” offered Calvo, also executive vice president of the Chelsea Chamber of Commerce.  “A few years ago, we at Stop & Compare in Chelsea invested significantly to improve our building’s façade and to install updated, modern signage.  It has made a marked, positive difference in our foot traffic and sales at that location, and I very much want to see other businesses in the Downtown corridor benefit from these kinds of improvements.”

Chelsea Chamber President Joseph W. Mahoney added, “We do get member businesses, and non-members, too, asking whether there are programs to assist business owners to fund signage and façade improvements.  For façades, we know that there is a small program to be made available, but the roll-out of the façade program has been at least a couple of years in the making. Our understanding is that there may also be a cost-sharing program for signage as well. The new signage ordinances still need to be passed by the City Council, so we’ve been telling businesses to sit tight, but be ready. We’ve been saying the same thing to our member and non-member businesses in the signage business.  We suggested to Craig Murphy, owner of our member Cambridge Reprographics, start talking to people now.”

“I think businesses are most excited about the potential return of blade signs,” Mahoney elaborated, “those that are perpendicular to the building.”  Newburyport’s shopping district is full of those signs. 

When one drives down its streets, one can see the businesses’ signs before accidentally passing them. Pedestrians also can spot their destination from a half-block away.

•Another piece of the regulations addresses outdoor or sidewalk dining – which was pioneered by the Ciao! Market on Broadway two summers ago. It was a success, by most accounts, and Graney said they would like to encourage others to try it.

First, however, they wanted to put some standards in place.

The regulations would only allow such dining on sidewalks and they would have to be immediately in front of the business. The furniture would have to be matching and of a high quality. There would have to be a safety plan, and businesses would be responsible for the area. No alcohol service would be allowed for the time being.

Seasonal heaters for outdoor dining are also being considered.

“Realistically, there’s not a lot of space,” she said. “Downtown, where this works, it’s two or three tables or six people. It’s similar to what Ciao! Did on their pilot.”

Addressing the proposed sidewalk dining ordinance, Chamber Executive Director Rich Cuthie was slightly more cautious. 

“Edson and Marvin from Ciao Pizza definitely have been the market movers on this and need to be applauded,” he said. “They put in the work and time with the City to test it out.  But let’s say it’s a nice summer evening and you and I wanted to have a beer and split a plate of nachos al fresco at a local restaurant on Broadway;  maybe an after work meeting or just something social. We sit down at the table and chairs on the sidewalk and then are told, ‘No, sorry. No alcohol is allowed outside.’  Like many people, we’re just going to get up, apologize, and either go to the inside of that restaurant, or another restaurant, or worse, decide to move our meeting or dinner to another town.”

Cuthie said there is no compelling argument for a business owner to make the investment in tables, chairs, and staffing while also having to insure against additional outdoor liabilities if the potential revenues to offset those costs are not there.

“No mistake,” Cuthie continued, “we’re happy and appreciative that the City is moving to try to formally create a path to outdoor dining, but without beer, wine, and cocktails—which by the way are a restaurant’s highest margin offerings and offset food costs, we’re missing the mark and I have to reserve judgment on the initiative’s ultimate success.  I don’t want Chelsea to always be 10 years behind other communities. We need proper updating now so that people will say, ‘It’s a beautiful evening, let’s have some margaritas and good Latin food in Chelsea tonight.  We’ll decide where we want to eat when we get there, because there are so many outdoor dining choices.’”

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