Company blazes name over Brattle Street; councillor sees signal to reassess the rules (update)

Kensho Technology’s sign over 44 Brattle St., Harvard Square. (Photo: Tom Meek)

The bidirectional bike lane on Brattle Street has company in controversy since Kensho Technologies, a growing player in the machine learning and analytics market targeting the finance, health care and national security sectors, has alerted residents and visitors to its new digs at 44 Brattle St. by erected a giant, electric blue LED sign – an intensely bright beacon that one passer-by described as an “optical oddity.”

Nowhere else in the historically zoned Harvard Square are there any such stark illuminations. The Kensho moniker stands out even more against the sheer spareness of the glass-encased building it occupies and the wintertime darkness that consumes Brattle Street at night.

The sign went up just over a week ago.

Update on Jan. 12, 2018: The sign was dimmed Friday after feedback from neighbors.

According to Charles Sullivan, executive director of the Cambridge Historical Commission, it is not in violation of any code or ordinance. “The Kensho sign was reviewed by [Community Development and Inspectional Services] and found to conform with the provisions of the sign code. The City Sports signs on the exterior of the building will be replaced with Kensho signs also,” Sullivan said, referring to the remains of the sporting goods store that closed all of its 26 stores in 2015.

“The other issue,” he pointed out, “is the commission’s lack of jurisdiction over interior features generally.”

The city has lagged in writing and adopting coherent outdoor-lighting laws since invasive light complaints came before the City Council and city planners at least a decade ago; the lack of ability to limit illumination leaking from building interiors has been cited by many as a weakness of the most recent efforts. In September, a despairing councillor said the city would be better off adopting a resident-written law from 2013.

Some are concerned about the precedent set by the tech company’s branding. “Kensho’s new [LED] window sign points to the need to reconsider standards for both exterior and interior signage in the Harvard Square Conservation District,” said vice mayor Jan Devereux, who believed a study group was in process to review the conservation district’s guidelines.

The lights can be dimmed, Kensho said. But inside its offices, workers seemed literally above any complaints.

“We hadn’t had any such feedback as of yet,” said Bhavesh Dayalji, head of client operations for the company. “We’re happy to be part of revitalizing Harvard Square, as more and more retail spaces are left empty. We’re also one of the largest employers of engineers in the Cambridge community and excited about some of the plans we have for the future that will benefit the wider Cambridge community.”

Most innovation ventures in Cambridge settle in and around Kendall Square, and much of the office space that Kensho now occupies, as Dayalji points out, had been vacant for some time.

One observer in Harvard Square seemed to appreciate what Kensho had installed, calling it “a sign of the times. You’ve gotta keep up.”

This post was updated Jan. 12, 2018, to correct that Kensho has an LED sign, not a neon sign.


6 Responses to "Company blazes name over Brattle Street; councillor sees signal to reassess the rules (update)"

  1. HeatherHoffman   Thursday, January 11, 2018 at 12:26 am

    I would love to see the analysis that supports the claim that this sign complies with zoning. It may, but a quick look at Article 7 of the Cambridge zoning ordinance suggests that there must be more to it than initially appears.

  2. prc   Thursday, January 11, 2018 at 7:11 am

    The City Sports space has been vacant for years. I wonder why its so difficult for a business to move into it or one of the other many vacant commercial properties in H Sq…

    The economy umm No its booming
    The location umm No H Sq is iconic
    The real estate values are down umm No all-time highs

    How about bs like thinking the c council or some community group thinks it can tell a business they can’t have a sign or better yet they will tell you what sign they feel is appropriate. Maybe the c council could also tell them how to run the business. What a joke. No wonder there is a record # of commercial properties vacant. How about welcoming the business!

  3. Doug Brown   Thursday, January 11, 2018 at 7:41 am

    Though visible from the street, this sign is installed internal to the building. This is an increasingly common tactic first pioneered by Google in Kendall Square and subsequently used citywide, including by Harvard elsewhere in Harvard Square. The City contends it has no jurisdiction over interior signage. However, the sign ordinance already covers signs applied to the insides of windows, so I see no reason to believe this line of reasoning.

  4. Pingback: Neon Blaze | For What it's Worth

  5. John Hawkinson   Friday, January 12, 2018 at 8:24 pm

    I was asked to review this sign issue. I think there’s a bunch here that’s kind of misleading, in the comments and the article both.

    Heather Hoffman suggests that Article 7 might bar this sign, but is not specific about why. One reason might be that it appears to be using most of the available frontage with letters that are higher than 1 foot high. But the photo misleads, because the sign is in only in one of the 4 bays. This perhaps shows it better, in context:

    According to the CDD sign certification the facade is 66′ long, so there are 66 ft² of signage allowed But that allotment is divided between Ann Taylor and Kensho, so Kensho gets 33 ft². Which is what that sign purports to be (27.4″ x 14′5.0″ is 32.91 ft²).

    Of course, there is only 33 ft² of interior signage allowed and I’m not sure how that works with the Ann Taylor division.

    The ordinance does limit the sign to 20′ above ground level, and it looks like this is just pushing that, but likely in compliance. I did not measure.

    Doug Brown misleadingly suggests, I think, that the Google sign shows the City has ceded jurisdiction of interior signs. But the sign ordinance does not apply in the MXD District of Kendall Square, where the Google sign is (instead the Cambridge Redevelopment Authority applies a different set of rules). This sign in Harvard Square is subject to the ordinance (except for the special §20.55.1 limited carveout of some restrictions for Harvard Square Overlay District, which this sign does fall in—but it does not appear that additional flexibility is in use here.)

    The statement “The City contends it has no jurisdiction over interior signage” is not accurate. Article 7 explicitly addresses signs “the inside or outside of any structure to be visible from the outside,” and “Wall signs shall include signs
    located on or behind the surface of windows.” I don’t think anyone from the City is claiming this does not apply.

    But lastly, I’m really troubled by this article’s characterization of the sign, “giant, electric blue neon sign – an intensely bright beacon

    This sign is not neon. It is LED, and not a particularly bright one at that.

    It’s not intense; many signs in Harvard Square are brighter. To me the sign is a dull thud of a color. It could easily have been real neon though. That’s allowed and there’s plenty of it around Harvard Square. It’d have to reduce to 5 ft², though.

    UPDATE: Apparently the sign was dimmed in the past day or so. See /status/951980479372251136

    Nowhere else in the historically zoned Harvard Square are there any such stark illuminations” Well, there’s a lot of neon in Harvard Square. I guess “such stark” is a judgment call, but I’d say the Beat Brasserie is a lot more stark. Certainly it’s brighter and more neon. Or the Out of Town News neon. Or the Brattle Arms neon. Or the Sinclair sign. Or…well a lot of things.

    The topic of the outdoor lighting ordinance is sufficiently complicated that I’m not going to address it here, other than to say, the applicability of those proposals to this situation is less than crystal clear to me.

  6. HeatherHoffman   Friday, January 12, 2018 at 9:14 pm

    Actually, I was referring to the height. The ordinance says 20 feet but not higher than the second floor window sills. The picture makes it look as though the sign is at the third floor level. The illumination may also be a problem.

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