City tries to get its arms around Inland Octopus art

Inland Octopus owner Bob Catsiff says he can find no legal proof that his mural violates city code.

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The new mural on the front of Inland Octopus was met with mixed reactions by passersby Tuesday morning moments after its completion. Most glanced up at the whimsical octopus as it invaded downtown Walla Walla while others just walked on by. Toy store owner, Bob Catsiff, clears a drop cloth in the background, at left. September 7, 2010

WALLA WALLA -- A larger-than-life purple octopus painted on the front of a downtown building over the weekend has city and downtown officials up in arms.

The castle-dwelling mollusk and a rainbow that blends into the Walla Walla skyline represent the whimsy and joy of destination toy store Inland Octopus, said owner Bob Catsiff. Whether it fits into the historic culture of downtown Walla Walla is another question, officials say. And whether anything can or should be done about it is another matter.

Local artist Aaron Randall, commissioned by Catsiff for the mural, painted the piece over the holiday weekend with Catsiff largely perched outside fielding reactions from passersby.

"All the feedback I had all weekend was that it was great," Catsiff said, acknowledging that few people would likely have told him to his face they disliked it. He especially believes it will be a hit with his niche market: children.

Even before merchants and public employees filed in to work Tuesday, word of the massive painting sandwiched among the historic buildings downtown had already reached the ears of City Manager Nabiel Shawa.

"I got my first phone call on Sunday," Shawa said. By Tuesday morning, he and Development Services Director Kim Lyonnais were stationed on the sidewalk across the street from the store at 7 E. Main St., canvassing the piece and examining the municipal code.

City technology employees Dave Dalan and Matt Seward got their first look at the finished product during a quick jaunt to grab coffee. The two said they loved the end result. "It really is eye-of-the-beholder," Dalan said. "But I think it's great. It's a toy store."

Author Steve Johnson, who writes his Sam McLeod books in the second-story office across the street, said he likes it better than the sterile white facade that previously stared him in the face.

"I'm not sure I'd want it all up and down Main Street," he said. "But it's a toy store. Kids are going to love it."

The painting raises numerous questions for the city. Among them: How much should local government be involved in decision-making for the design of local businesses? And if this piece is allowed, what might be next for a downtown that's been widely recognized for its historic architecture?

The city and Downtown Walla Walla Foundation painstakingly created downtown design standards that even include a selection of recommended paint colors. But Shawa said those standards are recommendations, not enforceable laws.

On the other hand, he said the city does have enforceable regulations for its sign code. But whether the painting counts as a sign is another question. Catsiff considers it a work of art. But Shawa believes its primary use is attracting customers, which may qualify as advertising.

"This is an area that can be controversial," Shawa said. "Design review is far more subjective than it is objective."

What makes this one even more controversial is that a drawing of it had been met with a "no" when presented to downtown and city officials in the past, said Downtown Walla Walla Foundation Executive Director Elio Agostini. However, in the months of looking through the code and asking officials about statutes Catsiff could find no legal proof that his piece would violate city code.

Agostini said a poll of downtown merchants Tuesday about the mural was split about 50/50.

"It has some merit and it's all in the eye of the beholder, and it is a toy store," Agostini said. He worries that other merchants will want to stray from the design formula that has helped put Walla Walla's downtown on a national radar. In fact, another mural on the building home to GRAZE also strays vastly from the recommended downtown color scheme, he said.

Catsiff has clearly benefitted from the visibility and reputation of downtown Walla Walla. But he believes his mural will give something back.

"I don't want to detract from downtown. I wanted to make a whimsical, fun, colorful statement," he said. "It should enhance everyone's business."


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