The outlook for the Springs is bright – as in vivid yellow, orange, pink and purple – according to most of the 200-plus who turned out Monday to discuss the design scheme that is beginning to define the Highway 12 commercial strip.
The Springs Community Alliance and Supervisor Susan Gorin called the meeting as debate heated up over the most recent of artist Rico Martin’s designs. Whereas his previous creations had generated discussion, the paint job at the southeast corner of East Thompson has stirred divisive, even abusive, online comments.
One element of the controversy was the process by which Martin’s designs were approved by the County, which paid for the work with forgivable loans through its Façade Improvement Program.
The Springs has an official set of design guidelines, from 1994, which call for a muted color scheme. But, as Tennis Wick, director of the Permit and Resource Management for the County, explained, those guidelines apply only to new construction – not to paint jobs on existing buildings.
The overwhelming consensus Monday was pro-color, though many people who rose to speak qualified their approval. When Janie Raymond, owner of Plain Jane’s, was first shown the plans for her building, she said she almost fainted. “It was so out of my comfort zone.” The design grew on her, she said, as did Martin’s advice that without an attention-grabbing storefront, “you are invisible.”
Raymond echoed another common theme of public comment – that businesses should decide for themselves. Even if people don’t like the paint job, “they should support my right to do it.”
Dmitra Smith agreed. “Some designs I liked, some were over the top. But if that’s what the business wanted, that was the end of it for me.”
Many said that the bright colors will attract attention and customers. “Springs businesses need all the help they can get,” said Norm Brown.
Artist Rico Martin, who confirmed that he is fully licensed for the work, said the jobs are a labor of love to realize a vision for the neighborhood. Even after getting donations of paint and materials, “I make about $3 an hour.”
The typical loan amount from the County is $15,000. The business does not have to pay back the loan if it adheres to rules of upkeep. The business (and/or building owner) is free to choose any designer or contractor.
Juan Hernandez, executive director of La Luz, said his agency helped facilitate the paperwork for several of the projects. Some early renditions were generic brown and beige, he said, and businesses were not too happy with the proposals. Hernandez said he thought Martin’s designs were more exciting, and invited Martin to present his ideas to the group. “They liked it,” he said. “Each business had a choice from the very beginning.”
(Some other businesses that received improvement loans to fund their own designs include El Molino, The Hot Box, Barking Dog and Republic of Thrift)
Martin’s plans for at least six structures, including some yet to come, were approved without sufficient public input, detractors said.
The plans were apparently shown at two public meetings, each sparsely attended. But because the County viewed the project as only “a paint job,” those presentations were informational only. Unlike a Design Review or Planning Commission meeting, formal public input is not part of the process.
“I engaged with the community at every meeting, and have made changes,” Martin said.
When asked if the flood of opinion Monday might cause him to revisit his designs for three upcoming projects, Martin said, “No. Those are a done deal.”
Mario Castillio was frustrated by the lack of public participation in the project, particularly in light of Monday’s huge, passionate crowd. “This is the meeting that should have happened 14 months ago.”
Sentiment seemed to call for updating the 1994 design guidelines, which do not address facades and call for, in the case of new buildings, a sedate palette of beige, rose and peach.
“That was then, when we wanted to clone the Sonoma Mission Inn,” said Cathy Shepard. “We’re not that anymore. We have become vibrant.”
Agreed recent Sonoma Valley High School grad Delaney Gold-Diamond, “Those guidelines are older than I am.”
— Val Robichaud