Ped Mall public art initiatives to move forward


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BenchMarks, the 2012 public art program that transformed more than 80 downtown benches into brightly colored, individual paint canvases, is back.

This time, however, officials are aiming for more sustainable and cohesive designs in its second round through the use of community-wide planning workshops.

Downtown officials are confident the University of Iowa Community Credit Union program can serve as a catalyst for future improvement plans, including a refreshed Pedestrian Mall streetscape and a more robust artist community.

The project works in conjunction with the city of Iowa City and the Iowa City-based Reclaiming Roots volunteer organization.

The creation of “minimal aesthetic” design will be achieved through a $10,000 grant given each year during a three-year period. The entirety of last year’s funds were spent. Reclaiming Roots is currently seeking community input to strip down and prepare the majority of benches in early May.

“I think we need to think differently about how we create art,” Nancy Bird, the Downtown District executive director said. “We believe the outdoor elements can be used as a gallery piece; as a cultural vibrancy project.”

BenchMarks was awarded a Merit Award for delivering excellence in downtown management from the International Downtown Association at their annual conference in Minneapolis on Sept. 28, 2012.

The bulk repainting of more than 100 of the all 125 downtown benches by professionally commissioned artists over the Memorial Day weekend is a part of the overarching Community Gallery Program that put forth the Tree Huggers and Public Pianos programs.

Bird said the city is working in conjunction with the Downtown District and consulting firms in putting together downtown streetscape updates that are to include refreshed lighting, way-finding signs, furniture, and landscaping. She said a public kickoff and planning meetings are anticipated to start in May. No timeline or cost estimates were made available as of Wednesday evening.

“The benches will be a part of that process; what happens with them and what we do with them in the future could look very different than what we do today,” Bird said. “We don’t want to keep rolling out the same old thing.”

John Engelbrecht, Public Space One director and this year’s creative lead for BenchMarks 2.0, said $3,000 has been allocated to hire a commercial painter that will prime each bench. When complete, the number painted will increase 25 percent over last year and most benches will consist of three to four similar colors.

“I think Iowa City wants to be a place where art is recognized; a place for creativity to thrive,“ he said.

Last year, roughly $5,000 to $6,000 was spent just on paint, Engelbrecht said.

Engelbrecht said with the pending Pedestrian Mall changes, he hopes to see public-art initiatives continue to move forward — not in the form of large-scale sculptures but rather in the form of educational programs.

Two long-standing downtown business owners see current and future beautification projects as must-haves renewing efforts in the area.

“I’m not saying you have to dismantle anything everything second, but who wouldn’t want to improve their environment,” said Catherine Champion, the owner of Catherine’s Boutique, 7 S. Dubuque St., and Cheap & Chic, 105 S. Dubuque St.

Calling the Ped Mall “tired,” Joni Schrup, the owner of Discerning Eye, 119 E. Washington St., said improved lighting options will improve the area’s safety perceptions.

“It’s fun when people come from out of town and comment about how good our downtown looks,” she said. “… As a business owner, we want what everybody wants; we want downtown to be a destination.”

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