MANCHESTER, N.H. – A new digital arts display sign is coming to Cat Alley, and without an amendment to the proposed agreement that would put it there.
In a 9-4 vote, the Manchester Board of Mayor and Aldermen (BMA) approved an “air rights” lease allowing the sign, which will be placed above the iconic Manchester alleyway at its exit point to the Elm Street sidewalk at 844 Elm St.
Opposition to the sign was led by Anthony Sapienza (Ward 5), who voiced frustration with a lack of recourse held by the city if sign applicant and 844 Elm Street LLC Representative Liz Hitchcock decided to transfer her lease to another less trustworthy tenant during the lease’s 20-year term.
Sapienza referred another nearby sign requested by Hitchcock on the sidewalk near 844 Elm St. that did have such a provision, although legal counsel present at the BMA Committee on Administration and Information Systems said that such provisions are usually present only on 100-year leases for permanent portions of buildings rather than affixed signs like the Cat Alley proposal.
He also compared the proposed sign to banner requests for Elm Street, which must go before the BMA for approval.
During the full BMA meeting, that comparison to Elm Street banners were challenged by other Aldermen, who noted that the banners are temporary, the sign is not in the sightline of motorists and there could be first amendment concerns if the city attempted to legislate specific types of non-commercial speech.
Will Stewart (Ward 2), also noted that the city has a clause in the lease contract prohibiting commercialization of the sign. Later, it was believed that any politicization of the sign that could make it appear that the city supported a particular candidate or political cause would be construed as a commercial and violate that clause.
Stewart added that the city can seek legal damages if the contract was violated, but Sapienza felt that needing to force a court case would put the city at needless risk when the matter could be settled immediately on Tuesday.
Jim Roy (Ward 4) also questioned the urgency for approval of the sign, which came forth due to Hitchcock scheduling workers to install the sign on Wednesday, believing that it would be approved on Tuesday.
There were also concerns that a lack of oversight on messaging could put the city in legal peril if a defamation lawsuit situation arose comparable to that of Michael Gill’s controversial The Mortgage Specialists sign on South Willow Street in 2017.
Hitchcock declined to agree to an amendment of the lease agreement at the Committee on Administration and Information Systems, which recommended the proposal unanimously, outside of Sapienza’s opposition.
At the full board, the proposal was opposed by Roy, Sapienza, Ross Terrio (Ward 7) and Michael Porter (Ward 8).
A full copy of the lease can be found below.