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Boston’s Love of Landmarks and the Need to Preserve Them

Of all the things that make Boston an interesting place to live and work, its history is one of the most unique.

Reminders of that history, stretching back to the Colonial Era and the Revolutionary War, are scattered across the city in the form of various landmarks we see every day.

Those familiar and historic features are an important part of the region’s cultural fabric, and something that residents, developers, and commercial tenants all work to preserve.

“It’s hard to put a value on these landmarks,” says Peter Farnum, an Executive Managing Director at Cushman & Wakefield who also sits on the board of the Freedom Trail Foundation. “But they are something people really appreciate.”

The most recent example is the discussion surrounding the Citgo sign on Boylston Street which has been a pop-art fixture in the Fenway Park skyline for decades.

The building on which the sign sits – 660 Boylston Street – is one of a number of properties Boston University has agreed to sell to Related Beal. Fearing that a new owner might look to take down the sign, some residents have pushed for it to be given official recognition.

In response, the Boston Landmarks Commission has voted to study the matter further and have given it “pending” status.

In total, there are 98 official approved landmarks in the city covering a wide range, including traditional landmarks like Faneuil Hall and the Boston Common to more unique ones such as restaurants, theaters, farms, and office and retail properties. In fact, buildings with landmark status in Boston account for more than 3.8 million SF of office space and more than 400,000 SF of retail space.

There are also 79 landmarks (including the sign) which have pending status, including Symphony Hall, the Boston Public Library and even (surprisingly) Fenway Park.

What the official “landmark” designation means varies significantly depending on the property.

In most cases – such as the Stock Exchange Building at 53 State Street – only specific exterior features or façades fall under the historic scope, so tenants and property owners can make interior changes without approval.

However, even keeping the façade of a historic building can add significantly to the costs of redevelopment on a site.

The push to preserve them, Farnum says, also comes somewhat out of the city’s urban renewal in the West End in the 60s, where historic structures were torn down completely and replaces with concrete.

“It made sense at the time, but now the area has lost some character,” he said.

The Citgo sign itself was actually involved in a previous petition to make it a landmark in 1983, as some residents looked to save it from demolition.

At that time – when the sign had been dark for four years – Citgo opposed the idea of making the sign a landmark because it didn’t want to commit to paying for its upkeep forever. Instead, the company spent $300,000 to restore the sign to working order, and the Landmarks Commission rejected the proposal to make it an official landmark by a 7-to-1 vote.

The company has since embraced the iconic sign, which has undergone a number of other upgrades, and now uses high-efficiency LEDs instead of its original neon.

While the “official” fate of the Citgo sign likely won’t be known until later this year, Related Beal does have a strong history working with historic buildings in the city, winning an award from the Boston Preservation Alliance and working on landmark properties such as the Grain Exchange Building on Milk Street and the Batterymarch Building on Broad Street, among others.

However, public opinion means it’s unlikely to be demolished anytime soon, so it will continue to shine down on Kenmore Square for years to come.

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