Passage of Mural Ordinance Marks a New Era


KCET Departures "Writing on the Wall" guest editorial series continues with Bill Lasarow, who serves as Board President of Mural Conservancy of Los Angeles (MCLA), and is the Publisher of ArtScene and Visual Art Source. Also contributing to this guest editorial were Isabel Rojas-Williams, Executive Director of MCLA, and Marlena Donohue, Co-Editor of ArtScene and the Visual Art Source Weekly Newsletter.

by Bill Lasarow

With the passage by L.A. City Council of the Mural Ordinance, and its certain signing-into-law by Mayor Eric Garcetti, the cultural landscape of Los Angeles recovers something essential that was lost a decade ago.

A citywide ban affecting murals placed on private property was an unintended consequence of the City's legitimate efforts to control wealthy and litigious billboard companies, such as Clear Channel and World Wide Rush, under the Comprehensive Sign Code of 1986. The courts overturned that law on constitutional grounds due to serious flaws in its language. After more than two years of preparation to re-establish the legal status of art murals through this new mural ordinance, artists' and their patrons' relationship with City Hall now changes by 180 degrees.

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Until early in this new century, Los Angeles was for decades regarded around the country and internationally as "The Mural Capital of the World." This was not so much by virtue of the quantity of our murals, so much as their frequently high quality. Some of the world's leading muralists created some of the most ambitious public art to be seen anywhere in the world, right here in L.A. It was possible then to obtain and complete important commissions without fear of misinformed harassment by a neighbor. Since 2002, until Wednesday, one call from a single vindictive person could result in the City issuing a citation to a civic-minded home or property owner, and painting out of the product of perhaps months of effort and significant expense.

The effect, over the course of the last decade, has been the disappearance of far too many cultural and neighborhood landmarks. There has been a noticeable reduction in mural activity, which has exerted a negative economic pressure on the art industry. The imposed ban may have been unconstitutional, but what client in their right mind would invest themselves and their money in a major project, that could be eradicated by a City work crew shortly after completion? What patron would pay for such a commission only to risk official harassment?

Those concerns now evaporate. The fact that the new law, for the first time, imposes specific regulations on new murals is essential to Los Angeles' opportunity to once again enjoy a period of fresh cultural renaissance. To gain official recognition with the protections that are explicit in the new law, a mural must be registered, a fee must be paid, and there will be a 45-day waiting period. This last provision stipulates that "the applicant for mural approval send notice ... to the Neighborhood Council ... [and subsequently] certifies that he or she has completed this neighborhood involvement requirement." While no artist or patron can be forced to alter a mural's content to satisfy the potential objection(s) of one or more neighbors, an important civic and civil process is put in motion. Let the dialogues proceed.

There are some who have spoken forcefully, but wrongheadedly, about their concern that this will mean they will be forced to live with something they detest at the whim of their neighbor; that taggers and gangs will invade their peaceful domain; and that property values will decline.

However: The first concern is possible, if rare, because under our Constitution you cannot tell that neighbor what they can or cannot do with their property (nor can they tell you what to do with yours). This is the law of the land, under not only the First Amendment, but the Fifth Amendment as well (its principles of "just takings" and "sole dominion"). Fear that taggers and gangs will invade homeowners' peaceful neighborhoods fails to understand that the new regulations, far from enabling such illegal activity, reinforce the very means to prevent it. Far from adversely affecting property values, with these new regulations quality professional art murals will in fact enhance property values.

Nonetheless, the efforts of those who are unjustifiably fearful of such outcomes have resulted in one provision in the new law that restricts its application to single family home, which reads in full: "No mural shall be placed on a lot that is improved with only one single-family residential structure and accessory structures." This is written so broadly as to leave unprotected the aforementioned constitutional rights: the First Amendment (freedom of speech and expression) and the Fifth Amendment ("just takings" and "sole dominion" of one's own property).

Despite the new law's failure to include single-family residences, Councilmembers Gilbert Cedillo (District 1) and José Huizar (District 14) moved to allow their districts to establish a pilot program to "opt-in" to allow murals to be created on homes. Research on the residence provision was wisely requested by the City Council. The Planning and Land Use Management (PLUM) Committee must then authorize this important step following the multi-department review.

So there is still work to be done. MCLA believes that citywide permission should be granted, with neighborhoods provided with a process to opt out of including residences. Perhaps a broadly agreeable middle ground can be crafted, based on blending the opt-in and opt-out approaches. Nearly all parties appear to understand that a blanket ban of murals on single-family residences is not an option, if the city is to avoid just the kind of litigations that produced the disastrous result of 2002.

Those of us who celebrate and support the arts will continue to work with City officials. Together we will ensure that an appropriate balance is struck between building an ecology of creative vitality, and that this energy will be capable of adding to the economic health of the local economy, while remaining respectful of the rights of fellow citizens. Passage of the Mural Ordinance tells us that all of these goals are achievable.

Top: 1971 "Steve McQueen Monument" on Union St., near 12th St., painted by Kent Twitchell on a single residence. Photo by Isabel Rojas-Williams.

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