The Fight to Save the Citgo Sign Is a Proxy War for Boston’s Soul

This is about a lot more than a big, red triangle in the sky.

Kenmore Square has changed dramatically over the years while leaving select bits untouched by the march of progress—in a way, it’s a fitting microcosm of what’s happening all across Boston. While you’ll struggle to find this water trough for horses erected in the middle of the square by the MSPCA in 1908, or even more modern ephemera like the Rat, you could look at this picture taken in 1911 (or this one from around the same time) and immediately recognize a few buildings still standing there today.

Each week seems to bring news of another neighborhood mainstay in Boston falling victim to the bulldozer. A decade-old diner beloved by locals in Southie will soon be razed to make way for nine luxury condos and a 10-car garage, while the Littlest Bar near the Greenway has already been reduced to rubble for this BRA-approved brain fart.

For the first time since 1982, the beloved Citgo sign in Kenmore Square could face an equally ignominious demise as the neighborhood undergoes yet another transformation. Back then, the petroleum giant planned to remove the sign after the nationwide energy crisis turned the lights off for four years. This time, it’s a red-hot housing market that could spell the end for the icon.

That we’re even having this sort of conversation about that blinking, 3,600-square-foot fixture of the Boston skyline is emblematic of an overarching question nagging this new, resurgent Hub: Are we losing what makes us uniquely Boston in the granite-countertopped euphoria of the city’s building boom?

News broke in January that Boston University, which has played a dominant role in transforming Kenmore Square from ground-zero of the city’s punk scene to something a little more seemly for visiting parents, had hired real estate firm Newmark Grubb Knight Frank to sell off 334,000 square-feet of commercial space across nine buildings there, including the one whose roof the Citgo sign has called home since 1965.

The Citgo sign itself, however, is not necessarily part of the deal. Part advertisement, part pop-art masterpiece, the sign is maintained by Federal Heath Sign Company, which leases the air rights above 660 Beacon Street from BU. It will be up to the new owner to decide whether to renew this lease, or scrap the sign and build up.

“There are lots of ways to adaptively reuse buildings and come up with viable economic solutions that don’t require tearing them down and turning a five-, six-story building into a 30-story building,” says Greg Galer, executive director of the nonprofit Boston Preservation Alliance. “Unfortunately, there’s this common misconception, maybe too common, that the only way to have a viable project is to go big and tall, and destroy the historic character of the buildings.”

The city’s Landmarks Commission met Tuesday night and granted the Citgo sign “pending designation” status. Next, the commission will prepare a report, and a public meeting will be held. If the commission approves its landmark status by a two-thirds vote, Mayor Marty Walsh has 15 days to approve or reject the proposal. If he rejects it, the City Council has 30 days to override his decision.

The Preservation Alliance, which successfully campaigned to save Southie’s 19th century Collins Mansion from a developer’s wrecking ball, drafted its own non-binding petition to solicit public support for the preservation effort. As of Wednesday morning, it has garnered more than 5,100 signatures.

“We thought this was one that people would get excited about and support. We know how much this is an icon of the city, and it’s recognized not only by Bostonians, but people all around the country, as our petition will show,” Galer says. “I saw someone posted from Brazil supporting it, that they used to live in Boston—I don’t know if they came to school here or whatever—and whenever they see the Citgo sign from back home in Brazil, they think of the city.”

Councilor Josh Zakim, whose district includes Kenmore Square, admits that while he hopes the Citgo sign can stick around, the matter hasn’t been a major concern for the Council, which recently passed Walsh’s $2.68 billion budget.

“It certainly has not, during out budget process, come up,” Zakim says. “I don’t want to minimize how nice it is to have the sign, but it’s not been a top issue we’re hearing from constituents. I think people are happy and want to keep it there, but you know as well as I do, the issues we’re hearing about in the Fenway area are traffic, affordable housing—issues that are much more in the forefront of people’s everyday lives.”

Zakim says that Citgo has taken an “active role” in trying to preserve the sign. (The Houston-based company could not be reached for comment.) Meanwhile, BU spokesperson Colin Riley told the Herald Tuesday that interested developers have all supplied the university with concepts that leave the Citgo sign untouched.

“I think Boston University has generally had a good relationship with their neighbors, and has been a good institutional citizen in Boston,” he says, “and I certainly hope that as the surrounding neighborhood makes their opinions heard on the Citgo sign and future development there, it will be taken seriously and addressed both by BU, the current landowner, and any potential purchasers of the parcels.”

After all, what an albatross that would be–forever the folks who dismantled a piece of Boston iconography.

“People recognize that the city needs to change and evolve, that we need new construction, we need new housing, we need all these things,” Galer says. “But people are really starting to feel that we’re nibbling away at the core character aspects of these various neighborhoods, and I think the Citgo sign is just a clear indication of that.”

BU says transforming Kenmore Square into a “commercial gateway” to its Charles River campus has been a priority since 1986, four years after it first bought property there, “when head shops and noisy nightclubs pockmarked the area.” A major player in this change was the four-star Hotel Commonwealth, built by the university in 2003 and spun off in 2012. But general manager Adam Sperling says the hotel only stands to benefit from the Citgo sign staying put.

“I will tell you, anecdotally, I don’t think that a day’s ever gone by that I don’t see somebody out in front of the hotel taking a picture of [the sign],” Sperling says. “If you ask my doorman, he’ll tell you he engages in conversation about that sign every day he works here. People want to know what it is.”

It’s a giant, red triangle on a field of white that fills and depletes over and over, and over. How fitting, that a city that wears its emotions on its sleeve has a heartbeat visible from miles away.