TAMPA — A divided City Council on Thursday postponed voting on whether to erase a single stretch of graffiti, much of it painted by visiting college rowing teams, from a Hillsborough River sea wall.
To its fans, the rowing graffiti is urban art. No one turned out to defend it, but council members Mary Mulhern and Yvonne Yolie Capin said the idea of removing it is provoking lots of opposition on blogs and social media. And they agreed it should be saved.
"I think it looks great, and that's what a city is supposed to be about: this kind of diversity, tradition, character and uniqueness," Mulhern said. "We want to show off our city, our traditions and our character and our history."
The council decided 6-1, with chairman Charlie Miranda voting no, to delay the discussion until 5 p.m. Aug. 21 to give people more time to voice their opinions.
The vote came after city officials emphasized that graffiti would be removed from only 650 of Tampa's 10,600 feet of riverfront seawall.
"The vast majority of the seawalls are not being touched," said Bob McDonaugh, the city's economic opportunity administrator.
McDonaugh also noted that photos from 2009 show that the section of the wall in question was mostly unpainted then. Most of what's there now has been added since, and includes graffiti from fraternities and offensive language.
Mayor Bob Buckhorn wants to let a contractor hired by the nonprofit Friends of the Riverwalk pressure-wash it from an area starting at the Kennedy Boulevard bridge and going north to Kiley Gardens. The removal would cost $80,000. The city would pay half.
Once it's gone, Buckhorn wants to put a new public art installation along that section of the Riverwalk, which is expected to open in January. It would consist of underwater lights between the Riverwalk and the sea wall. Motion sensors would change the color of the lights as pedestrians passed by.
Friends of the Riverwalk president Steven Anderson said the group's board had discussed the proposal at length, with a few board members raising concerns about removing the graffiti, but ended up strongly supporting the vision.
"We're talking about a small piece of the graffiti that's up there, and it's not all rowing related or fraternity related," Anderson told the council. "Some of it is real, true, objectionable graffiti."
If it's such an eyesore, council member Frank Reddick asked, why didn't anyone complain about it two years ago during the Republican National Convention?
Probably because they couldn't get close enough to see it, McDonaugh said. Currently, the best view of the sea wall to be scrubbed is 320 feet away, at the University of Tampa across the river.
By contrast, he said that when the new section of the Riverwalk opens, pedestrians will be 15 or 20 feet from the graffiti, making the profanity much easier to spot.
That was good enough for council member Lisa Montelione.
"Some are works of art, some are graffiti and some contain foul language," she said. "I see that there is a problem with that particular section."
This week, Buckhorn said the idea is to make the Riverwalk active and engaging, as well as to "highlight Tampa's best natural asset, the Hillsborough River." The new lighted art project will be "a signature for Tampa," he said.
But Capin said the rowers' graffiti already does that.
"It's more than art," she said. "It's a tradition. There are cities in our country that embrace this. Boston is one of them. Philadelphia. Austin.
"It is a very big deal, rowing," she said, alluding to Sarasota's efforts to build a $40 million rowing center in advance of the World Rowing Championships in 2017.
Erasing school colors and logos left by visiting teams, she said, is like "pulling the welcoming mat."
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In unrelated business, the council approved doing a study on creating "quiet zones" for CSX train horns in Ybor City, downtown and south toward the Port Tampa neighborhood.
The council agreed to hire King Engineering Associates for $90,545 for a study the city needs to conduct in order to apply for a state grant to help pay for adding safety features to railroad crossings.
The state has budgeted $10 million to help cities pay for up to half the costs of creating quiet zones. The deadline to seek the money is Oct. 15.