Despite hearing from multiple downtown business owners and representatives of stakeholder organizations, the Spencer City Council on Monday passed a second filing of an ordinance that would allow murals.
The ordinance amends city code to allow murals to be placed on the side or back outside wall of a commercial building, but not on the front outside wall. A third and final filing must still be approved for the amendment to take effect.
However, on Monday, the council heard arguments against murals as allowed in the amendment..
Spencer Main Street Director Nancy Naeve spoke on behalf of downtown area businesses, some of whom she said did not want the ordinance approved as written.
“I just figured no one was saying anything because they had no objections,” Naeve said. “They had no intentions of putting a mural on the wall. And as much as this hurts my newsperson’s heart, it’s because they were unaware.”
Naeve said the business owners are “all for public art,” but are worried about how murals may harm the downtown area’s standing as a historic district, specifically nine key buildings in the district.
“They would rather not have it on any street-facing walls,” Naeve said. “We’re still worried that by putting the mural, even if it’s on another material, into the mortar of the building, it could hurt the integrity of it.”
She said the Historic Preservation Committee isn’t “thrilled” with the compromise reached in the amendment. That compromise allows for that committee’s input to be provided, but doesn’t grant it a veto option.
The committee, Naeve said, would rather see murals in alleys.
Kari Roskens, owner of Kari’s, said that’s what LeMars does and Spencer could follow that city’s example.
“They have murals in their alleyways,” Roskens said. “I think that would be cool. You could come see what there is to see in Spencer and you could walk down the alleys that have been beautified in the last 15 years so they look so much better than they used to. There’s plenty of spaces.”
Wanting to preserve historic buildings, Art Deco style
At the center of the issue, Naeve said, was the downtown area’s Art Deco architecture. Many of Spencer’s older downtown area building’s feature the Art Deco style made popular in the 1920s and 30s.
Per the amendment, the Historic Preservation Committee also will review, comment and provide suggestions before a permit will be issued for murals on historic or contributing buildings.
But some on the committee, and others, don’t think that arrangement goes far enough.
Bob Rose, Historic Preservation Committee member and former Spencer Main Street Director, told the council he didn’t feel murals are appropriate on historic buildings. He also noted Spencer’s considerable number of Art Deco-style buildings.
“We have a unique downtown, maybe not quite unique because there are two other communities in the country that have similar districts of Art Deco architecture,” Rose said. “Miami is one and I think Tulsa, Oklahoma is the other. We are number three.”
Rose recommended a study be conducted to determine a better next step.
“There isn’t really any real urgency to do this,” he said. “Let’s take a step back, take a deep breath and maybe we can come up with a better solution.”
Others shared concerns that the murals may harm that architectural appeal and affect the area’s historic designation. The ordinance, among other rules, requires murals on historic or contributing buildings to be painted on a separate surface and then attached to the building.
Contributing buildings are buildings that contribute to a district’s historic qualities.
“I can tell you if you don’t value the original architecture, if you allow things to get out of hand, it’s going to hurt your image, as far as tourism goes, and the value of the surrounding property,” said Jim Schooley, owner of Toad’s Coffee and Tea. “So, I think it’s important for us to recognize when Spencer lost a lot of historic significance that we would appreciate having today.”
Schooley said he appreciates murals, but they have their issues.
“I think that murals are a great artistic expression,” Schooley said. “I think they have their place and I think that the problem with some murals is they become commercial. They can become a broader form of advertising and that can get into a kind of competition that is not good for the historic value of your community if everybody is trying to outdo each other with something that they think will enhance their business prospects.”
Kalie Joynt, interior designer at Steffen Furniture, told the council she doesn’t think there’s any reason to cover up the buildings.
“It’s always been really important to me to see these buildings and know that they’re being well-taken care of and that we still keep them alive,” said Joynt, who studied interior design at Iowa State University with an emphasis in historic preservation.
Compromised already reached, council says
As several city council members said Monday, the ordinance is the result of a process that included numerous council meetings, committee meetings, research and conversations with citizens.
“We’ve talked a lot about it,” Mayor Kevin Robinson said at the meeting. “It’s been on the agenda, off the agenda in several different committee meetings.”
The resulting ordinance reflects the various input received.
Council members thanked those who spoke and acknowledged many of their concerns.
“I don’t think there’s anyone on the council who wants us to be in a position where we would lose our historic preservation designation,” council member Bill Orrison said. “I don’t think any of us would want that to happen.”
Orrison referenced the section of the ordinance allowing the Historic Preservation Committee some say in the process.
City Attorney Don Hemphill clarified that paragraph doesn’t give the committee power to veto a mural.
“If the applicant complies with this ordinance, the zoning officer couldn’t deny the permit just because the preservation committee has concerns,” Hemphill said at the meeting.
Council member George Moriarty said he wanted more oversight, but was OK with the compromise.
“I didn’t get what I wanted out of it,” Moriarty said. “I wanted SPACE to have some say about it and that was taken out. This was a total compromise for me, but I think it’s a viable one. I wish that this would have come forth sooner and it’s strange to me that the (Historic Preservation Committee) isn’t here tonight, other than Bob (Rose).”
As for concerns that murals could put the downtown’s historic designation at risk, City Manager Amanda Mack said she and planning department staff met with a representative from the state Historic Preservation Office who provided many suggestions that were included in the amendment language.
Council member Steve Bomgaars also addressed the downtown’s historic designation.
“One of the things that we asked (the state) several times – and I believe Leann probably talked to the state, as well – and that was: If we had this mural ordinance, would it cause us to lose the designation of our historic downtown. And, to date, we have not received anything that says that we would.”
Bomgaars listed Dubuque, Decorah and Calmar as communities with historic areas and have mural ordinances.
“The list goes on and on,” Bomgaars said of the number of communities.
Council member Leann Jacobsen, who has been a leading proponent of the murals, said many communities across the state are “clamoring” to have murals created in their communities.
Jacobsen said murals could help Spencer’s downtown area.
“Of course it’s all of our goals to revitalize our downtown,” she said. “We’re all working really hard to make downtown Spencer a vital place. There is no better way to do this than public art and that means murals.”
She added that property owners should be able to do what they want with their property and that Spencer must “trust the community to be responsible” when it comes to painting the murals.
“I think, in conjunction with an experienced muralist helping, providing guidance, working with the community, these become works of art,” Jacobsen said. “These help people connect with their communities. And the artists who we’ve heard from in the community who are excited about this, I think their voices need to be represented tonight.”
Before the council voted, Robinson asked historic building owners considering murals to keep in mind the architecture that makes their building – and the downtown district – special.
“I would just ask that the building owners that have those historic buildings really move forward in the process of trying to maintain and really leverage the sanctity of that design and the uniqueness of it,” he said.