Walla Walla City Council to try to get arms around mural

Supporters want the Inland Octopus mural to stay; others worry about setting a precedent.

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WALLA WALLA - One person's whimsy is another person's nonsense. Art has always been an eye-of-the-beholder matter.

Anyone remember how heated people got over the pipe-smoking pioneer mother in the Tom Otterness covered wagon piece for Pioneer Park? Or how in late 2006 a plan for incorporating harrow plow discs to make music in a piece downtown struck such a sour note with merchants that it was withdrawn?

In the case of the Inland Octopus mural, the issue isn't as much about taste as intent, city officials say. Is the painting of the giant purple octopus peeking over a castle wall meant to serve as a sign for the Main Street toy store? Or is it a color splash of art popping from the historic downtown for all to enjoy? And should it make a difference if the painting serves both functions?

The mural will be part of a discussion Monday during a Walla Walla City Council work session at City Hall, 15 N. Third Ave. It is one of four items on the agenda for the 4 p.m. meeting, said Mayor Barbara Clark. A 60-minute block has been budgeted for the item, the final piece on the agenda, she said.

In the five weeks since artist Aaron Randall painted the mural on the downtown storefront at 7 E. Main St. the giant mollusk has been the talk of the town. Partly because it came as a surprise cap to a long Labor Day weekend. Mostly because in the ensuing weeks city officials have debated whether the estimated 600-square-foot painting is illegal and should be removed.

"Nobody's saying you can't have an octopus," City Attorney Tim Donaldson said. "It's just four times too big."

But in a mass e-mail calling for supporters to attend Monday's work session, Inland Octopus owner Bob Catsiff said removal of the painting would be "a case of selective enforcement of the code.

"The definition of ‘sign' in the code is so hopelessly open-ended that anything could be considered a sign," he wrote.

After moving his 5-year-old toy store to its current location last April, Catsiff presented a proposal for the mural to the Downtown Walla Walla Foundation. The foundation's Design Committee, a group that can make recommendations but has no legal authority for design, rejected the concept.

Foundation Executive Director Elio Agostini also reportedly presented the concept to staff for the city, which does have legal authority. It reportedly told him the mural would not be allowed.

Catsiff began looking for which law, code, statute or ordinance would be violated if the mural was painted. He maintains the piece is art, not a sign. Even so, he believes the sign ordinance is so vague that virtually everything from flower pots to bike racks with the city's logo could be considered signs.

He commissioned Randall for the job. The mural was painted over Labor Day weekend without a right-of-way permit or other municipal approval.

Supporters of the mural have been outspoken in their criticism of the city, taking to social networking sites and message boards to voice their love for the painting and imploring officials to spend their time on more critical issues.

To those involved, however, this is critical. For Catsiff, the mural represents his freedom of expression, as well as a strategy for the success of his store. A livelihood whose sales contribute to the city's bottom line.

For the city, it's an issue of fairness and precedence. The sign code clearly provides a set of enforceable dimensions for which all other downtown operators abide and in doing so have contributed to the stability of the retail corridor, officials say. If this purported violation is allowed, what else might be next from another merchant with more questionable taste?

Few have denied that the mural fits well with the theme of the store. In fact, that's where the debate gets more complicated. Among the hundreds of comments posted on Facebook and message boards over the last month, some mural supporters have not only characterized the issue as a case of the government picking on the merchant, but worse - hitting a beloved toy store where it hurts the most: in the hearts of children.

Donaldson knows how upset the prospect of removing the mural has made some residents. Apart from the rumor that more than one well-capitalized downtown business person has offered to help Catsiff with any potential legal battle, there are the calls Donaldson has received from folks who want to see the painting stay.

"People are saying, ‘You're only doing this because you don't like it.' But there's nothing nefarious going on here," Donaldson said.

"People want to paint us as bad guys. But if this stays, what do we say to the next people - ‘Well, gee, if you do it over a weekend when we're not here and it's already out there we're not going to do anything about it. Otherwise, the sign code applies?'"

If, indeed, officials determine the piece is not a sign but instead qualifies as public art, it raises another issue. The sculptures that line the city streets and the mural at Heritage Square Park - all of which were bequeathed to the city as public art - were subject to a public process that included hearings and pre-approval. The mural was not.

Downtown officials believe there may be a middle ground with the Inland Octopus piece. Agostini wonders if removing just the octopus part would remove the "sign" characterization by the city.

Whatever the outcome may be, he said downtown will be made better by the process.

"If (the mural) is left there, I would absolutely accept it," Agostini said. "But if it is forced to be taken down, I will accept that, too."

Vicki Hillhouse can be reached at vickihillhouse@wwub.com or 526-8321.

The sign code:

The Walla Walla Municipal Code defines a sign as "any device, structure, fixture (including the supportive structure) or any other surface that identifies, advertises and/or promotes an activity, product service, place, business, political or social point of view or any other thing." The municipal code defines a "wall sign" as "any sign attached to or painted directly on the wall, or erected against and parallel to the wall of the building, not extending more than twelve inches from the wall."

How work session will proceed:

Different from a traditional City Council meeting, a work session is a more casual meeting where no formal vote is taken, said Mayor Barbara Clark.

Council members sit at the big conference table in their chambers and listen to a report from city staff. In this case, City Attorney Tim Donaldson will present his findings. Council members then have an opportunity to ask questions of staff members.

Afterward, people in attendance at the meeting will be given an opportunity to ask questions or make comments.

The mural is one of four items on the agenda. A time period has been roughly allotted for each item. The mural has been given a 60-minute allotment and will be the last item discussed.

Other items also on the agenda and their rough time estimates are: budget development, 10 minutes; Walla Walla Valley Farmers Market improvements, 15 minutes; and Columbia REA service on Dell Avenue to AMCOR, the proposed plastic bottling manufacturer, 20 minutes.

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