BY ETHAN FORMAN
---- — DANVERS — The fate of the newest McDonald’s in town may hinge on its getting permission to relocate a sign along Endicott Street as it vies with Wendy’s, Taco Bell and Burger King for instant recognition and a bite of your wallet.
The three other fast-food restaurants have signs and buildings that block the eastbound view of the newcomer along the busy commercial strip that includes the Liberty Tree Mall across the street.
Representatives for the town’s fourth McDonald’s have asked the Zoning Board of Appeals for permission to take down a 20-foot-tall “pylon” sign that sits to one side of the restaurant and replace it with a shorter, 12-foot-tall “monument” sign.
The new sign would have a brick base and an electronic signboard and would occupy a parking space at the front of the eatery. Both the old sign and the new one would have the same area: 80 square feet. The new sign, while 8 feet shorter than the existing one, would be more visible to drivers along Endicott Street.
“As you are aware, the success of the quick-serve restaurant business relies largely on being instantly recognized by traffic passing the site,” McDonald’s engineering firm, Bohler Engineering of Southborough, wrote in a letter to the Zoning Board of Appeals seeking a variance for the new sign.
“Since opening, however,” according to Bohler’s letter, “McDonald’s has experienced sales numbers significantly lower than anticipated. They attribute this directly to hindered visibility, as competitors have signs and buildings much closer to the road than McDonald’s.”
The board did not vote on the variance request at a meeting Feb. 11, but continued the matter to Feb. 25. Building Inspector Richard Maloney said board members would like to see what the new sign would look like before granting approval.
A message seeking comment from Bohler was not returned.
McDonald’s is the last of the four drive-through restaurants that motorists can pick from on the eastbound side of the road.
The visibility problem, however, appears to be unique to the property at 182 Endicott St.
That’s because a 200-foot-wide power line right of way slices diagonally across the front corner of the property. That meant the restaurant had to be set back from the road farther than the other fast-food places. The easement also prevents the new sign from being taller than 12 feet.
Many in town know the address as the former location of the Crab House, a Chinese restaurant, and, before that, a York Steak House. McDonald’s held a grand opening at the end of November.
Just to the west of the new McDonald’s is Burger King, whose large sign was approved and built when the rest of the strip was developed in the 1970s — before the town had sign regulations in zoning, Maloney said.
If Burger King came in for the same size sign it has now, Maloney said, zoning would not allow it — “not that size.” The Liberty Tree Mall’s main sign, at 55 feet tall, was considered a structure, rather than a sign, when the mall was built. When the sign was replaced in recent years, the mall’s representatives had to win approval from the zoning board, Maloney said.
The other issue for McDonald’s is that rules limit signs to either one freestanding sign or one on the side of the building for single-tenant buildings. McDonald’s was granted permission for seven signs, including the freestanding sign, one on the building and several others, including a “Welcome” above an entrance. The location inherited sign locations from the former restaurants on the property, and the number of signs was reduced.
“Every case is different,” Maloney said about how developers and the town approach signage.
Yu Hu, assistant professor of marketing and decision science at Salem State University’s Bertolon School of Business, wondered if the sign location is the real problem.
“You think their store is big enough to attract traffic,” Hu said. He said the restaurant may be suffering from its nearby competition, and it would do just as well by offering promotions to get people in the door.
Hu said that on a road like Endicott Street, which is a local street, the sign only works the first time drivers pass by the restaurant; then they know the McDonald’s is there.
Another change is that the new sign will provide electronic messages and be lit by LEDs.
“We allow the technology,” Maloney said, “but we don’t allow them to flash or move during the day.”
Unfortunately, Maloney said, every other electronic sign in town has violated this rule at some point.
Staff writer Ethan Forman can be reached at 978-338-2673, by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @DanverSalemNews.