N.C. 54 restaurant keeps giant window photos

Commission unanimously decides signs outsize rules

tgrubb@newsobserver.comJanuary 10, 2013 

— A restaurant on N.C. 54 will get to keep displaying its larger-than-life photos of legendary coach Dean Smith and basketball superstar Michael Jordan.

The Chapel Hill Public Arts Commission voted unanimously Wednesday night that the posters in the Tobacco Road restaurant’s windows fall outside the town’s sign, land-use and design rules.

Chairwoman Lisa Goldstein said they also don’t meet the commission’s definition of art.

Since they’re inside the restaurant’s windows, the photos aren’t really murals, said commission member Nancy Kitterman.

“If you put a giant sculpture in your front yard, I can see it every day,” she said. “(But) it’s your property. It’s your business, and basically, if I don’t like it, I don’t have to look at it.”

The 12-foot-by-22-foot vinyl basketball photos did raise concerns about other businesses filling big windows with images. “You see so many of these images in big cities where it’s an individual just holding one little thing, and suddenly it becomes a billboard,” commission Vice Chairman Daniel Cefalo said. “My concern is how do we isolate this one moment. There are tons of windows this size throughout this town that could easily become large billboards.”

Members voted to recommend to the town that the commission review public art guidelines, define its courtesy review process and craft more clear distinctions between signs and art.

They tabled until another meeting whether to work with staff to define murals and other types of window and wall art, and draw up courtesy review policies for private works with input from artists, arts organizations and advisory boards. Member Scott Radway and others said they don’t want artists and building owners to be constrained by what the town or commission thinks is appropriate.

The town’s review of the Tobacco Road windows started with a Glen Lennox resident’s letter to the editor, in which he complained about seeing the posters across from his neighborhood. Restaurant owner Brian Amra said that was the only complaint he received out of several dozen emails. The photos block a view of the kitchen and will be there a long time, he said.

In December, the Community Design Commission recommended that town staff and the arts commission decide whether the posters are appropriate. Town staff members said they do not consider the photos, which some called murals, to be signs.

All public art first must go to the Public Arts Commission, but East-West Partners developer Ben Perry acknowledged they did not do that and apologized to the town staff and both advisory boards. The restaurant is located in the developer’s East 54 project.

Grubb: 919-932-8746

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