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Fritz defends plan that’ll convert ‘America’s Bike Capital’ mural into big ad for bike shop

Buffered Bike Lane with a bike symbol and arrow pointing forward

A bike rental shop put the mural up without city approval. Now that the city has enforced its code, the shop has received permission to convert the bike icon to an ad and remove the current lettering.
(Photos by M.Andersen/BikePortland)

Update 5/9: Pedal Bike Tours spokeswoman Lota LaMontagne writes in an email that the letters won’t be painted over until late morning on Monday. “There has been no change in the decision by the city for the mural to come down,” she writes. “This is only related to timing on the logistics of painting such a large space in a public parking lot.” The story has been updated to reflect this.

The Portland city commissioner who oversees code enforcement said Wednesday that if the local business behind an iconic but unsanctioned pro-bike mural had wanted to create public art, it should have followed the procedure for doing so.

“There’s a method to get a mural,” Commissioner Amanda Fritz said in a brief exchange outside city council chambers, adding that the city council had “worked very hard to produce” a set of rules governing public advertising and murals. She declined any further conversation on the issue.

But because the downtown Portland building in question is designated as an historic landmark, an official mural isn’t allowed on the wall, either.

Advertisements, on the other hand, are. And barring further developments, workers will next week erase the declaration “Welcome to America’s Bicycle Capital” from the side of the building at SW 2nd near Ash. Later this month, the current 1,800-square-foot mural is slated to be repainted into a 484-square-foot ad for Pedal Bike Tours.

Like the existing mural, the new ad will also be larger than the 100 square feet permitted by city code. But because this time around, Pedal Bike Tours owner Todd Roll applied for an exception to city rules that are intended to limit advertising, the city is letting him keep the 484-square-foot ad space he’s now proposed.

Mayor Charlie Hales, who said he was familiar with the mural but hadn’t heard that it’s due to be removed on Monday, deferred comment to Fritz.

“Let’s let the permit process work,” Hales said, nodding to Fritz, who oversees the Bureau of Development Services, for any further comments.

Commissioner Fritz, left, speaks on an unrelated issue at City Council Wednesday.

Roll admits that when he installed the current mural in 2012, he decided not to ask for city permission before adding what he saw as a mostly noncommercial pro-bike message to the wall of the building his shop uses.

“I was trying to make this a point of civic pride,” Roll said. “I figured the city would see our way, and they did not.”

Roll said he had, however, cleared the idea with his landlord.

After city code enforcers received a complaint about the sign, Roll said yesterday, his business “went through a six-month process of trying to fight to keep the sign” and put up a “few thousand in fines and fees” in an effort to preserve it under the rules governing public advertisements.

At the end, Roll received the city’s permission to keep control of the area currently filled by the circular bike icon, which is both an international symbol for bicycles and part of the Pedal Bike Tours logo. He currently plans to add the name of the shop, an arrow pointing to the shop and “a few words about what we do.” All the current lettering is due to be removed.

“If people don’t like it and I’ve spent this amount of money, I’m just going to make it pure advertising,” Roll said yesterday.

I asked Brian Libby, publisher of the blog Portland Architecture, for his take.

“I love the mural, both its graphics and its message,” Libby wrote in an email. “And I think it ought to have been allowed to stay. But unless I’m missing something, it seems like the way Todd Roll went about this is what accounts for its undoing. You can’t just ignore city code and then act surprised or persecuted if it gets enforced. It may be true that local signage and advertising regulations seem convoluted, but the city has a careful tightrope to walk between minimizing billboards/mural ads and allowing artistic, non-advertising murals. I can’t help but wonder if the mural would be staying if Roll had followed the process from the beginning.”

Will Vanlue, spokesman for the Bicycle Transportation Alliance, had this to say in an email: “The mural has quickly become an icon in the city that celebrates what we love about bicycling. Not being familiar with the process required to place a mural or large ad, we can’t comment on what should or shouldn’t have happened in the past. What we do know is people involved with this issue are smart and passionate about our city. We’re hopeful everyone can sit down with each other, talk about shared concerns, and decide on a solution which represents Portlanders and our shared values and culture.”

A mural elsewhere in Portland.
(Photo by Cory Doctorow)

Tiffany Conklin of the Portland Street Art Alliance had a question that was in some ways similar to Fritz’s reaction: why hasn’t Pedal Bike Tours tried to apply for a retroactive mural permit?

“I have heard of places getting retroactive mural permits,” she said. “It’s not the normal process and the city doesn’t encourage anyone to do it.”

Conklin said the circular bike icon “blurs the line” between art and ad, but that removing the circle would seem to leave no doubt. (In its current form, she said, the Street Art Alliance sees the display as fundamentally advertising in nature.)

“Get rid of the circle, and make sure that it’s not an ad in any way, shape or form, and he could probably get a mural permit for $50,” she said.

But Ross Caron, a spokesman for the Bureau of Development Services, said that’s not possible because the building in question is a historic landmark — and unlike advertisements, artistic murals aren’t allowed on historic landmarks.

Pedal Bike Tours owner Todd Roll and two tourists with the mural his company created in 2012.

Roll, for his part, said he would “theoretically” have been willing to remove the bike icon if that would let them keep the lettering.

After repeated scheduling changes, Pedal Bike Tours says the lettering will be removed late morning on Monday.