ARTery's tree mural at center of debate in Atascadero

Supporters of the mural on the wall of the ARTery, painted by Reilly Baker, pose so co-owner Bobbi Nuñez can take a photo Wednesday evening.
Supporters of the mural on the wall of the ARTery, painted by Reilly Baker, pose so co-owner Bobbi Nuñez can take a photo Wednesday evening. jjohnston@thetribunenews.com

UPDATE: After supporters rallied over the weekend to save the tree mural, the ARTery's owners announced Sunday on Facebook that they've decided to appeal the city's Design Review Committee's decision to the Planning Commission.

Original story: A mural painted on the side of an Atascadero business is once again a hot topic in town, this time because a city review committee says the size and location of the image don’t fit in with the downtown’s character and it’s got to go.

The 600-square-foot mixed-media piece, painted in May, features a person sitting under a large tree with blue and green tones highlighted by neon spray paint. It’s displayed on a 600-foot exterior wall of the ARTery building at Traffic Way and Palma Avenue.

“It’s just a peaceful image. It’s got a little bit of edge. We’re an art store and that’s our goal — to be a little bit fun, a little bit funky,” said Bobbi Nuñez, who owns the ARTery with her husband, Bill Arkfeld.

But the tree mural was commissioned without getting a permit first, a violation of city law. The building owners said they thought they could get a permit afterward. The city’s Design Review Committee, made up of elected and appointed officials plus one resident, denied their application on the grounds that it didn’t match downtown’s character. Now, the owners are faced with possibly filing an appeal — which costs $460 — with the city’s Planning Commission by Friday or painting over the mural by July 22.

As of Friday, the couple hadn’t decided what to do.

City planner Alfredo Castillo, who is assigned to the project, says it’s unfortunate that the painting was already up when the review committee made its decision.

“If they had an idea they could have come to the (review committee) and we could have fleshed this out with them,” he said.

A mural permit was approved in April for the new Molly Pitcher Brewing Co. building downtown, Castillo said.

The ARTery's owners said they knew about the permitting rule, but timing was an issue. They jumped on the opportunity to commission the mural from a Santa Cruz artist and friend passing through town on Memorial Day weekend. The artist, Reilly Baker, had a limited opportunity to do the work because he was leaving the country.

“We thought, ‘If it means a more vibrant business environment, why not?’” Nuñez said. “The reality is the city has a history of approval after-the-fact.”

Public attention has swelled around the issue, reminiscent of Atascadero’s big debate in 2010 over whether a pair of brightly colored bicycles painted on an outer wall of K-Man Cycle & Run along Highway 101 was considered a sign. The City Council at the time ultimately allowed the K-Man mural to stay and opted to waive Atascadero’s roughly $700 fee to apply for murals.

Fans are also talking about the issue on the Facebook event page “Rally to Save the Tree Mural”, while neighbors have voiced concerns that the city’s process wasn’t followed.

“Yes, there are people who love it. But there’s those of us who feel it’s in your face, it wasn’t permitted and there was no attempt to follow the process,” downtown Envisions Gallery Director Joe Benson said. “It has nothing to do with its beauty. It’s that Mr. Arkfeld broke the law.”

When the city received a complaint about the ARTery’s mural via an anonymous email, Castillo sent the owners a permit application and set a hearing before the review committee for June 21. Anyone from the community can appeal the committee’s decision.

If an appeal is filed, the city will place a stay on the deadline to repaint the wall until the Planning Commission makes its decision, he said.

“We’re open to all options,” Arkfeld said. “We want to hear responses from our audience, and our audience is saying don’t paint it over loud and clear.”