Johnson City asked to ease location requirements for downtown murals

This mural in downtown's Majestic Park, shown in this 2015 file photo, is one of a handful of murals present in Johnson City's downtown historic district. The JCDA's design committee is asking the Johnson City Historic Zoning Commission to consider easing location restrictions on murals in the downtown area.

After introducing requirements more than two years ago on where the artwork can go in the downtown area, Johnson City has been asked to relax restrictions on murals in its downtown historic district.

The Johnson City Development Authority’s design committee is asking the Johnson City Historic Zoning Commission to lift restrictions on the allowable locations of murals in the downtown historic district, or increase the number of allowable sites by listing specific walls that would be appropriate for the artwork.

The body is also suggesting that the city outline a more comprehensive list of acceptable materials for murals.

The item appears on the commission’s agenda for its meeting at 5:30 p.m. Tuesday at City Hall. Historic Zoning Commission Chairman Nathan Brand said he isn’t sure if the commission will vote on the item during the meeting, but he’s confident members will at least discuss the request.

According to the city’s downtown historic district design guidelines, murals in the district are only allowed on walls that don’t face the street. They also aren’t allowed next to parking lots, and the walls they appear on must be at an angle greater than 45 degrees from the street facade.

Dianna Cantler, the downtown development director for the Johnson City Development Authority, said officials want to see more murals in the city’s downtown, which can be used as a way to inspire people to explore the city.

“Sometimes, it’s just about encouraging people to walk from place to place,” Cantler said. “If they know art is on the next block, they’re more likely to walk down there.”

Cantler said the city has been strategic in recent years about how it places artwork in the downtown area, pointing to the installation of sculptures in Founders Park that connect to State of Franklin Road and the establishment of a “quote walk” composed of stones embedded in the sidewalk.

“It’s all very intentional about encouraging people to stay in the area,” she said. “It helps with walkability. It also helps to deter crime.”

Brand said he’s heard complaints from many citizens about the restrictiveness of current mural guidelines. In light of that feedback, Brand said he’s more than willing to revisit the rules.

“So many people talk about the great murals they see in other downtowns,” Brand said. “Nashville specifically is brought up a lot.”

After reviewing the guidelines, Brand said he believes there’s room for improvement and justification in easing some of the restrictions.

Under the city’s downtown design guidelines, proposed murals must be approved by the Johnson City Public Art Committee before artists can submit an application for a “certificate of appropriateness” from the city. The planning department reviews the application to ensure the proposed mural meets all the downtown design guidelines. The Historic Zoning Commission then makes a final decision.

Cole Hendrix, the vice president of the city’s public art committee and chairwoman of the mural subcommittee, doesn’t expect the approval process will change.

In addition to looser location requirements, Hendrix would like to see the guidelines list every material appropriate for murals in the downtown historic district, ensuring buildings aren’t harmed by an incompatible substance.

For example, she said silicate-based paint is in general the most appropriate material for historic, unpainted brick — a stipulation that’s included in the city’s guidelines — but Hendrix noted that a surface that has already been painted, shouldn’t be painted over with a silicate-based paint because it won’t adhere correctly.

Hendrix noted some artists may feel intimidated by the current location requirements. She also noted that there are a number of walls in the downtown area, including one in Fountain Plaza near the Northeast State parking lot, that people have expressed interest in painting.

Before the historic zoning commission introduced new rules for murals in 2017, member Hal Hunter, who was then chair of the commission, said the city’s guidelines did not allow murals in the downtown historic district.

After it was asked to reassess its mural ban in May 2017, the Johnson City Historic Zoning Commission approved in October 2017 guidelines for murals in the downtown historic district, allowing them to appear on non-street facing walls.