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(NECN: Peter Howe, Cambridge, Mass.) - One big way that former Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis came to statewide fame – and ultimately the 1988 Democratic nomination for president – was as a late 1960s crusader against the excesses of the billboard industry in the Bay State.
Now 79 and teaching at Northeastern University and in California, Dukakis has come back to his roots – leading the opposition to pharmaceutical giant Sanofi U.S.’s plans for a big logo sign on the top of its 640 Memorial Drive building in Cambridge, overlooking the recently rehabbed Boston University Bridge at the gateway to the Charles River Basin.
"I just think the Charles River and its bridges and that whole corridor is a very special place," Dukakis said in an interview Wednesday afternoon. "And we ought to do everything to make it beautiful, to keep it beautiful, and I don't think putting humongous signs on the top of buildings meets that goal."
Sanofi is going to the Cambridge Board of Zoning Appeal on July 11 for a variance to install the sign, and it’s stirring up some history. Three years ago, Microsoft pushed for permission to get its name on top of the 1 Memorial Drive building where it has its NERD center, New England Research and Development center.
Critics, alarmed at the possibility of the historic Charles riverfront becoming a sea of billboards for companies trying to be seen by motorists on Memorial Drive and Storrow Drive, put together photo illustrations arguing, what if every company did? That led 19,000 Cambridge voters to sign petitions pushing the City Council to rescind its permission for the Microsoft sign.
City officials did not respond to a request for comment on Wednesday about the Sanofi sign application.
Terry Ragon, founder and CEO of health-records technology giant Intersystems, which shares the One Memorial Drive building – but has a modest street-level sign – led the fight against the Microsoft sign and is now back at it with the Sanofi fight.
"Fundamentally, the question is: Do we want Cambridge to be an office park? Or the kind of city that traditionally it's always been. I mean, it's always been a university town," Ragon said. "I’m not opposed to big business, but increasingly, it's starting to take on the feel of an office park."
"Imagine every building having a sign on it, because that's where we're headed unless we do something to reverse the policies of this city government," Ragon said.
Sanofi U.S. spokesman Jack Cox said in an e-mailed statement: "Sanofi chose this location for a variety of reasons, including its proximity to other Sanofi facilities and epicenter of the state's life science industry. We intend to follow due process and work with the city of Cambridge's planning board in all signage approval standards and processes."
The brick building at 640 Memorial has a rich history, having served originally as an assembly plant for Ford Motor Co. before Ford moved to a location in Somerville that, as a result, became known as Assembly Square.
Dukakis has been on a crusade against statewide relaxation of bans on billboards and advertising on MBTA property, something he banned as governor, and has been especially concerned about full-color, digital, animated billboards beginning to sprout up along highways. The Sanofi sign, he said, is just one more front in that campaign.
"Sanofi is a very well-known, international company," Dukakis said. "If you're looking for Sanofi, you can find it, believe me, and a nice tasteful sign next to the door, I think, will be fine when it comes to people who want to find their way there. I don't think they need this thing on the roof."
With videographer Scott Wholley.