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October 7, 2007

Look of downtown signs a calculated process

Anyone who lived in Newburyport in the early 1970s probably remembers Bob’s Subs.

There wasn’t anything particularly unusual about the submarine sandwiches, but Bob’s sign sure got a lot of attention.

Standing two stories tall, it dominated Market Square and covered the windows and brick facade of the building that now houses the Thirsty Whale bar.

It was just the kind of thing that irked Paul McGinley.

McGinley, the director of the Newburyport Redevelopment Authority in the early 1970s, was in a position to do something about it. Even though the Bob’s Subs building wasn’t technically part of the 22 acres of buildings and lots under the NRA’s control, the NRA had the power to make virtually all downtown signs conform to the new look of Newburyport — a look that called for small wooden signs like the ones that used to hang on State Street 100 years earlier.

At the NRA’s insistence, the sign at Bob’s Subs eventually came crashing down in 1976.

Today, some 31 years later, the NRA owns barely a sliver of that 22 acres. But it still holds sway over the look of the downtown. Almost every sign in downtown Newburyport must adhere to decisions made by the NRA. The five-member board also has power over other aspects of the appearance of the downtown — such as air conditioners protruding from windows, posters in store windows and banners.

And, of course, buildings. The NRA exercises control over the appearance of windows, doorways, roofs, gutters, downspouts and the like.

The crusade to bring conformity to Newburyport’s downtown signs began 42 years ago, when the NRA was given power to establish rules for creating a cohesive, attractive Colonial-era look. The battle over signs and facades in downtown Newburyport has never really ended.

“Every property within the redevelopment area has stated in its deed that they are required to abide by the NRA’s design standards,” said Mary Lou Supple, a former member of the board who served for a decade. “Initially, everyone was on board, but as properties turned over ... it became more contentious, especially in the recession.”

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