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Murals now permitted in Johnson City's historic district under new guidelines

Zach Vance • Updated Nov 29, 2017 at 11:35 PM

It took six months, but the Historic Zoning Commission finally adopted new guidelines in October permitting murals in specific areas of downtown Johnson City.

After being asked to reassess its mural ban in May, the Commission spent the following months modifying and critiquing language so it could regulate a mural’s size, location and the type of paint or material used without actually infringing on freedom of speech rights.

Under the First Amendment, a governmental body cannot regulate the content of a mural, but the Historic Zoning commissioners also expressed concern over implementing a policy without any content regulation.

As a solution, the Commission included a policy that requires a mural first gain approval from the Johnson City Arts Council, a nonprofit, privately funded arts committee.

At the time of a mural’s review, the Johnson City Historic Zoning Commission will only review the wall where the mural is to be placed and the manner in which it will be installed.

Murals can only be approved on non-street facing walls, which aren’t located beside parking lots. The wall must also be at an angle greater than 45 degrees from the street facade.

Mural permits are granted for five-year periods, but can be removed earlier under specific circumstances or through approval from the Commission.

The new mural language doesn’t incorporate a grandfather clause for existing murals, although Historic Zoning Commission Chairman Hal Hunter said existing murals were more or less considered “grandfathered,” because the new policy would not apply to them.

Three years ago, business owner Dick Nelson drew some grumblings from Johnson City code enforcement officers over a large graffiti-style painting on the rear of his building, which is in the Historic District. As of late, Nelson said the issue has slowly dissipated, a trend he hopes continues.

Murals can be applied using silicate dye paints or breathable mesh vinyl, which is what the Johnson City Development Authority is hoping to use for a mural along the breezeway separating the Downtown Square parking lot and West Main Street.

The whole reason the Commission even considered overturning its mural ban earlier this year was due to a request from JCDA Director of Downtown Development Dianna Cantler.

Cantler and the Authority crafted a plan to transform the dark and gloomy walkway covered by a canopy into a sociable gathering area, complete with an interactive one-dimensional mural.

“Artwork encourages people to linger. We want people to come downtown and enjoy — not just the historic buildings and the facades — but also enjoy art on a larger scale than what you might see in a museum,” Cantler said.

Despite now having the go-ahead to paint the mural, Cantler said on Wednesday that the breezeway project, which includes new lighting fixtures and benches, won’t begin until January, which is when the Public Works Department will begin installing electrical conduits.

Cantler initially foresaw painting a large butterfly or chalkboard for the area, but now is hoping to partner with students at East Tennessee State University to create the mural.

“We're working with somebody at ETSU to let students propose art for the interactive mural part (of the breezeway). So we're going to wait and do that when they come back for the spring semester,” Cantler said.

“The goal is to have it all completed by March. When the weather turns nice again, we'll have everything ready to go.”

Instead of hiring an artist to actually paint the mural, Cantler said it would be much more cost-effective and temporary to have the design commercially printed on vinyl and then installed with heat guns.

“There's no damage to the brick, but it's also a cost-effective measure because the artist is not out there having to paint on the wall. The labor is a lot less,” Cantler said.

“This is just a way that's a little more temporary, and then it makes it sort of unique. In the case of the breezeway, it works really well because we can take it down in two or three years and put another one up.”

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