Walgreens sign variance
In February we agreed to neither support nor oppose Walgreens' request for a variance on a lighted, second-floor sign at the Porter Square Galleria. Michael Brandon could not attend that meeting, but did obtain a copy of the variance application and requested some additional consideration of the issue. He posted various materials on Google Docs (see http://tiny.cc/psna ; you may need to log in to view this.) Attorney Katie Thomason and District Manager Damian Smith returned to answer our questions.
Despite concerns about setting a precedent and about general visual clutter, the consensus of the meeting was that the proposed sign's size (40 inches high, over the 30 inch limit) and second story location were acceptable, given that it is set back from the street and not visible from nearby residences. We reaffirmed our decision not to oppose or support the variance. This position could change for signs closer to the street(s), multiple signs, less cooperative applicants, or other reasons.
Several other concerns emerged during questions. We want the first story windows including the ones facing White Street not to be obstructed by interior fixtures, sale signs, or the like. Damian said that an open plan was the intent. In addition to the planned escalator, we pointed out that ADA requirements may mandate an interior elevator.
We had a free-ranging discussion of recent store closings along Massachusetts Avenue, particularly Roach's Sporting Goods, and what if anything we could do to encourage retail and small businesses in the area. Although we don't have hard facts, it seems likely that Roach's succumbed from a combination of burnout, a lack of re-invention that is crucial for any business to survive, and (probably) a big rent increase.
Simon Shapiro provided us with many insights. Running a small store is hard work; a new retailer can expect to spend 12-18 hours a day, 7 days a week, with no profits for the first few years. Only somebody with a strong vision and passion for their work will survive. Cambridge taxes all businesses at the same rate, ranging from a one-person store to a pharmaceuticals company, and requires a lot of permits and other regulatory paperwork. Banks and landlords demand a good business plan and a credit-worthy owner. We are still in the down part of the economic cycle.
The main thing residents can do is actually patronize local stores rather than shopping online or in big chains elsewhere. Politically, it might be possible to work for a lower real estate tax rate for small, locally owned businesses. However this would be a huge project, and it's not clear how to draw the line legally.
MBTA, Ears to the Ground
We didn't have time to get to these.