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Painting the town: Meeting to focus on rules for public murals

Grand Forks leaders are seeking a consultant to help it design a downtown "master plan," which could reshape spaces like Town Square. (Herald photo/Sam Easter)

Years from now, Grand Forks might be dotted with new, colorful, well-tended murals, all splashed onto buildings from Gateway Drive to the city's south end, as artists make use of pending changes to city code.

At least, that's one possibility. In practice, some leaders worry, things might go differently.

Grand Forks planning officials are weighing changes to local law that would simplify adding mural art to buildings. The move is consistent with a years-long effort, led by City Hall, toward building "vibrancy," be it through a hipper downtown or more large-scale public art. But with knotty questions about ownership and upkeep, they're asking for public input before they move ahead.

"Are we biting off a ... maintenance headache—then we have to get another governing body to look over the murals and make sure they're up to date?" asked Steve Wasvick, who heads the city's Planning and Zoning Commission. "And once an artist puts their heart and soul into it, and then the building changes, is it that building owner's right to take it down?"

City officials have scheduled a public input meeting for 5:30 p.m. on Thursday, March 22, to discuss those changes. Current law requires that murals are painted on a panel, and then placed on a building, but city documents say a "variety of interested parties" would like to paint directly onto buildings. Andy Conlon, a community development official with the city, said he began working with the issue last year, when a local street festival's plans ran afoul of the mural laws.

"We saw that as an obstacle to murals and public art in general, especially with the renewed push on that," he said. The changes that he's researched since would allow paint to be applied directly to a building—but not to historic buildings, and never with obscene art or commercial content. "In terms of the actual ordinance change, we brought that to planning and zoning (leaders) ... (and) they had some good concerns."

Those worries, described by Wasvick, are the kind of bureaucratic necessities that exist at the border between art and public policy. How will the city enforce upkeep, he wondered? Who will pay for it?

Conlon noted that these are just changes in city code—not part of a bigger plan to add murals—and that the changes would allow murals throughout the city, not just downtown.

But he noted that the downtown area is what most people associate with mural art. And it's also where much of the city's attention has been focused as it strives to build a town more attractive to a young workforce, a philosophy consistent with Gov. Doug Burgum's Main Street Initiative.

The push for a bigger, brighter downtown recently ran afoul of public backlash at Arbor Park, 15 S. Fourth St., where park backers were dismayed by its demolition to make way for a condo development. Mary Weaver, owner of downtown's Browning Arts and an opponent of construction, said she's still discussing the mural code and would not yet offer a public opinion about it. She said it's "very possible" she will be at the public input meeting.

Sarah Prout is director of Grand Forks Downtown Development Association. She downplayed worries about upkeep, but said she would expect anyone to take pride in mural work. She also brushed aside worries about the city policing what qualifies as "commercial" art.

"It's definitely a fine line. If you drag the conversation out long enough, I think anything you put on the side of a building could be advertising in some way," she said. "(But) art is a beautiful thing, and the expression of it really could continue to add vibrancy to our downtown."

Sam Easter

Sam Easter is a City Government reporter for the Grand Forks Herald. You can reach him with story tips, comments and ideas at 701-330-3441.

(701) 780-1108
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