The Los Angeles City Council will vote Tuesday, Aug. 20 on a citywide mural ordinance. Existing law makes  no difference between murals and signs. Shown is the mural Touch of Venice on Windward Avenue. Photo by Jorge M. Vargas, Jr.

The Los Angeles City Council will vote Tuesday, Aug. 20 on a citywide mural ordinance. Existing law makes
no difference between murals and signs. Shown is the mural Touch of Venice on Windward Avenue. Photo by Jorge M. Vargas, Jr.

By Gary Walker
Years in the making, a final version of a long-awaited mural ordinance is at last slated to come before the Los Angeles City Council Tuesday, Aug. 20.
While there are hundreds of supporters of a citywide law that will clarify the definition between art and commercial signage and who would like to see Los Angeles once again become “the mural capital of the world,” the council will almost certainly hear from community representatives who want restrictions on where these colorful art pieces can be placed.
The new ordinance would remove the existing moratorium on murals in public areas, would distinguish art from signs and would allow neighborhood councils the ability to weigh in on proposed art in residential zones.
The Neighborhood Council of Westchester-Playa held a special meeting to address the ordinance Aug. 6 and voted against lifting the moratorium. If city leaders choose to remove it, the local council has indicated it would prefer not allowing murals in residential neighborhoods.
“The neighborhood council opposes ending the moratorium but, if ended, supports the city attorney’s Option B of the draft ordinance with conditions and that the (Neighborhood Council of Westchester-Playa) reserves the right to bring to committee for proper vetting and review if we have additional time to do so,” the local council motion states.
Westchester-Playa backs seven conditions that would restrict murals in certain communities and parts of specific neighborhoods, including on apartment buildings and single-family homes, the prohibition of “digitally printed murals,” funding for enforcement mechanisms and procedures and the requirement that neighborhoods that want murals in residential zones apply for permission from the city, among other things.
“Given the Aug. 20 hearing date at City Council, some on the board felt the urgency to bring it to the board,” explained council president Cyndi Hench. “There are open issues in the ordinance like ‘opting in or out,’ who enforces the ordinance, how are grandfathered murals identified and tracked, dispute resolution and more.”
Many councils have discussed the mural ordinance for months and Hench said her council’s Government Affairs Committee should have examined it “but the committee chair did not do that.”
Venice is one local community where residents seem open to having murals on and near single-family residences. Its neighborhood council president, Linda Lucks, attended the Westchester-Playa council meeting and noted that the ordinance has been covered in the press as well as with its movement through various city committees.
“There have been a lot of community hearings on this,” Lucks said. “Now it’s just a question of where they fit in and where they don’t.”
Former Councilman Bill Rosendahl submitted a motion in 2011 calling for a law that clearly considers murals as art – which the most current definition does not – and does not include the artworks in the city’s new sign ordinance.
The Venice council backed the former councilman’s motion and voted unanimously earlier this year in favor of lifting the moratorium.
They have also had renowned artists such as muralist Judith Baca address their local board on what she thinks are the pros and cons of the ordinance.
Baca is the founder of the Venice-based Social and Public Art Resource Center (SPARC), an arts center that since 1976 has produced, preserved and conducted educational programs about community-based artworks.
The Venice council’s Arts Committee recently met to talk about the ordinance and added the following caveats to its support for the proposal:
Mural art, regardless of medium (whether hand painted or digital) be treated as one-of-a-kind fine art and thereby afforded similar protections and allowances to the full extent of this ordinance.
Further, that the five-unit restriction on placement of murals be lifted to allow for diversity of placement possibilities whether it be on the backside of a single-family unit, a garage door, or larger scale as with buildings of five units more.
Lastly, murals be protected by the California Art Preservation Act (CAPA) and the Visual Artists Rights Act (VARA), which requires that the artists be given a 90-day notice to be able to move the mural to another location.
The Mar Vista Community Council has also taken a position against permitting murals in certain neighborhoods.
“Murals belong in the right environment. I do not believe that a mural painted on the front or side of a residential-zoned single-family home is the right place,” said Steve Wallace, co-chair of the council’s Land Use and Management Committee.
The Mar Vista council concerns about the mural ordinance are very similar in nature to those of Westchester-Playa, particularly those involving art in residential zones and whether there should be exceptions. They also want the City Council to consider whether murals in residential zones should be limited to areas that are not visible from the public right-of-way and if communities that wish to have murals should be permitted to use existing land use tools such as overlay zones to allow murals in residential zones.
“I support artwork, it’s a wonderful thing, and I have seen some great murals. However murals belong in the right environment,” Wallace added.
“Neighbors should not be subject to waking up everyday to open the blinds and see a mural sprawled all over the front side of their neighbor’s home unless they are in favor of it.”
A member of the Westchester-Playa Council, Patricia Lyon, said she thought her council might be acting prematurely because there could be residents in Westchester who might enjoy having a mural on or near their home.
Hench reiterated the impending Aug. 20 date was upon them and said there was little time for the Governmental Affairs Committee to review it first before the council could take a vote on it.
The proposed ordinance includes a new clearer distinction that defines original murals as “hand-painted, hand-tiled or digitally printed images on the exterior wall of a building that does not contain any commercial message.”
The art must also be registered and community hearings held before any work can begin.