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What if a busy crossing could become Napa’s newest work of art? A proposal recently discussed by Napa’s advisory team for public art would convert the square of asphalt linking Main and Second streets in the heart of downtown into a canvas for one of the city’s most unusual artworks.
A pavement-mounted installation – at the core of a 2019 rebuilding to create a more walkable, restaurant-friendly Main Street in the city center – may join similar outdoor art pieces created for other urban crossroads across the U.S. under a grant program underwritten by the finance news publisher Mike Bloomberg.
The backdrop for such an installation would be an intersection Napa overhauled two years ago into the first of its kind in the city – a “scramble” crossing where red lights stop vehicle traffic in all three directions, allowing pedestrians and cyclists to freely cut across the intersection, including diagonally, rather than passing through narrower crosswalks. The crossing also was raised to the same level as surrounding sidewalks, eliminating dips and rises for people walking through.
So far, the rebuilt Main-Second crossing has been left unmarked and thus is a blank slate for whatever artist Napa may choose to fill it.
“It really is a perfect canvas; they haven’t yet put in the traditional markings, the white stripes that go across the asphalt,” Katrina Gregory, recreation manager for the city Parks and Recreation department, told the Public Art Steering Committee during an online meeting last week. “It’s a brand-new street that any material would adhere nicely to.”
In addition to creating a downtown focal point, a Main-Second crossing embedded with art should improve safety by calling attention to the all-directions “scramble” pattern and serving as a traffic calmer for drivers, Gregory added.
Napa may turn its attention to placing artworks in various parks, a parking garage and the newly built roundabout complex west of downtown.
The practice of folding murals into intersections, roadways and plazas is the mission of the Asphalt Art Initiative, a Bloomberg Philanthropies program that issues grants for such projects as a relatively low-cost way to beautify urban areas and increase their vitality. Outdoor installations funded by the initiative have opened in cities including Kansas City; Norfolk, Virginia; and Chattanooga, Tennessee, with about a dozen other projects planned nationwide, according to the program’s website.
Napa applied for the Bloomberg foundation’s latest round of pavement-art grants before the April 30 deadline and will learn this fall whether it will receive funding, said Gregory. A successful application could win the city up to $25,000 of the estimated $150,000 for the project, which the committee endorsed for Napa’s 2022-23 public art budget. (Terms of the grants require cities to select an artist and complete the work by the end of 2022, Gregory said.)
A graphic at Main and Second could take the form either of a painted mural or of a thermoplastic overlay, which Gregory said could be temporarily removed and then replaced when city crews service water mains and other buried utilities.
The city’s Main Street block between Second and Third streets is about to get a whole new look –- one that adds more room for sidewalk dining, a new median and the city’s first “pedestrian scramble” intersection.
While an art-infused intersection would create a clear visual hub downtown, committee member Lissa Gibbs suggested thinking beyond aesthetics – by getting local residents and especially youth involved in its design or creation.
“When I think of a project like this, I really would hope there is a way that young people could be involved in the making of the art,” she said. “I wouldn’t want to see that space that belongs to everyone in the community ceded only to become a novelty for a few minutes for people to live here, and a tourist attraction otherwise.”
However, Gibbs’ colleague John Hannaford cautioned against passing over established artists for the design of such a prominent and heavily traveled crossroads in downtown Napa, even if younger Napans are entrusted with installation or other supporting duties.
“Having led lots of student groups for murals and such, what I worry about is that when students do it, there’s not the same kind of professionalism as, for instance, the murals going up by the (downtown) post office,” he said. “This one, being where it’s going to be, needs to be technically vibrant. I would rather see students helping or facilitating the project, but (ensuring) the end result is highly professional-looking.”
The idea of embedding art into a downtown crossing first emerged about 20 years ago when a group of local artists suggested painting a large compass at Main and First streets, one block north of the newly proposed project site, according to Craig Smith, executive director of the Downtown Napa Association merchants’ group.
While the compass idea never got beyond the talking stage, he said Wednesday, “for some people it birthed an added appreciation of public art” — from the sculptures displayed through Napa’s Art Walk to more offbeat expressions like the decorative wraps covering utility boxes on city streets.
“Everybody has walked up to an intersection and hardly noticed that there is an ugly, drab, green or gray utility box there,” said Smith. “Turn it into a piece of art, and it puts a smile on your face and it can foster a conversation. I think it’s a plus for everybody on lots of levels.”
Currently, the section of Main between Second and Third streets is closed to through traffic, allowing restaurants to install outdoor seating during the pandemic. The city is planning to retain this block for dining through next February while long-range plans are considered.
Discussion of a Main Street-Second Street installation follows the public art committee’s endorsement in March of including four other projects totaling more than $800,000 to the city’s new budget, which takes effect July 1.
That package includes an artwork at California Boulevard and First Street within the triple roundabout linking Highway 29 to downtown, as well as an installation for the Second Street parking garage and a project near an unbuilt segment of the Napa Valley Vine Trail along Soscol Avenue. In addition, Napa would launch an Art in Parks program to add art pieces away from downtown, at some of more than 50 recreational areas across the city.
Upon approval for Napa’s upcoming budgets, the projects would be paid for through the city public art fund, which is supplied through a requirement for the builders of larger commercial projects to provide a publicly viewable artwork or else provide art funding equal to 1% of the total project cost. The City Council is scheduled to vote on approving the 2021-22 budget June 15.
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