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Proposed changes to Johnson City mural policy could mean more artwork downtown

David Floyd • Updated Feb 26, 2020 at 9:33 AM

New rules for murals, which in the downtown area are currently limited to certain walls, could mean more works of art in downtown Johnson City.

A topic of debate for years, the historic zoning commission will hold a public hearing 5:30 p.m. Tuesday at City Hall to consider revisions to the city’s policy on murals in the downtown historic district.

“We are trying to loosen the restrictions on location but tighten the restrictions on protecting historic materials, structures, etc.,” said Johnson City Senior Planner Matt Manley.

Current guidelines for the district don’t allow murals on walls that face the street or parking lots, and the walls that murals appear on must be at an angle greater than 45 degrees from the street facade. Since that policy was adopted, the city says there have been no applications submitted to place murals in the downtown district.

Under the proposed policy, which would involve assessing murals on a case-by-case basis, Manley said the city would strike all current location requirements. The proposed design standards say murals would be allowed on flat walls that have a “critical mass” of open wall space large enough to accommodate an “appropriately sized” mural.

Murals can’t be painted directly on unpainted historic brick and mortar constructed before 1930, but they can be applied to another material attached to the wall. They could only be painted directly on brick surfaces if the original facade was constructed with Portland cement mortar or if the brick was previously painted.

Silicate dye or other types of breathable paint must be used. The commission would consider the type of allowable paint on a case-by-case basis.

Murals would be allowed on a breathable, mesh vinyl or fabric material that can be applied to a wall, but the material would need to be removable without damaging the wall. Murals also can’t obscure or be applied to architectural features like windows, doors or cornices.

Proposed guidelines require that the murals not detract from the architectural character of a building and that they don’t cover physical characteristics that reflect changes to the building over time or cover elements that reflect the original purpose of the structure.

Nathan Brand, chairman of the Johnson City Historic Zoning Commission, said he believes changing the guidelines would open the door for much more artwork in the downtown area.

“The goal of that is not only beautification but revitalization,” he said, pointing out that murals can bring people downtown and keep them there. “They’re interesting and they make a downtown more exciting and lively and they can keep people’s attention and make them feel more comfortable.”

Business owner Dick Nelson, who operates both Nelson Fine Art & Framing and Dos Gatos Coffee Bar in the downtown area, has been a notable figure in this debate.

Several years ago, according to prior Press reporting, codes enforcement officials had gripes about a large graffiti-style painting on the back of Nelson’s building at 320 E. Main St.

Nelson said there’s been an argument about whether the painting, which says “Nelson Fine Art” in big block letters, qualifies as a sign or a mural, which is what Nelson calls it. He said nobody from the city has contacted him about the mural in at least a year. He estimated the artwork has been in place for seven or eight years.

The historic zoning commission initially voted in February 2016 to ban murals in the historic district, but introduced allowances in October 2017 that permitted the artwork under specific guidelines. The commission’s role has been to weigh in on where a mural can be put and the manner in which the artwork is installed.

Nelson is supportive of the notion of easing location requirements in the downtown historic district, calling it “incredible.”

He pointed out that Philadelphia, which is 150 years older than Johnson City, has thousands of murals.

The historic zoning commission will have final say on the proposed policy. It would not require a vote from the Johnson City Commission.

Brand said this question is a quintessential demonstration of the historic zoning commission’s overarching mandate.

“We are tasked with balancing historic preservation with responsible growth and development,” he said, “and this is just a prime case of the historic zoning commission responding to this thing under its purview in a way that I’m proud of because it balances the needs of our community and requests of our community with the preservation of our buildings.”

Editor’s note: This article has been updated to clarify the city’s rules for murals on unpainted brick and mortar constructed before 1930.