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Local Business Sparks Debate of Art Vs. Grafitti

Scotch Plains Zoning Officer has deemed a mural on the corner of East 2nd Street and Willow Avenue graffiti and in violation of the township's Property Maintenance Ordinance.

Discussions about a painting on the exterior of an East 2nd Street business in Scotch Plains, NJ will come to a head on Wednesday during a municipal hearing, according to Township Co-Manager, Construction Official, and Zoning Officer Robert LaCosta.

Scotch Plains’ Property Maintenance Code states that no individual may damage, mutilate, or deface the exterior surface of a building by placing any markings, carvings, or graffiti.

According to LaCosta, the property that houses , a party and event rental space on the corner of East 2nd Street and Willow Avenue, is in violation of this code.

“Well, I think when you read our Property Maintenance Ordinance it talks about things that could lead to a degradation of the neighborhood, and in my opinion, the work that they’ve done, again in my opinion, could lead to the degradation of the neighborhood,“ LaCosta said.

Lisa Schiller, proprietor of the business in question, believes, however, there is room for interpretation with the aforementioned ordinance. She said commissioning the mural, which is not yet complete, was an attempt to beautify the exterior of her business.

“It’s hiding a very tired, worn out building with something a little bit prettier and fun to look at,” Schiller said.

After receiving complaints from residents in the area, LaCosta conducted an investigation on the property. He said he found several issues regarding non-approval as it relates to zoning and required permits for signage, in addition to the issue of graffiti on the exterior wall.

LaCosta said he sent out a notice to the property owner in compliance with the New Jersey Uniform Construction Code.

“The owner was also notified under our Property Maintenance Ordinance that it is graffiti and that if she is going to apply to the board of adjustments, then that’s a decision that the board of adjustments will make, if it is in fact signage or if it is in fact graffiti.”

Seymour Stein, owner of the property, said it is up to Schiller to comply with the law.

“I comply with all laws–the tenants in turn are responsible for the same thing,” Stein said.

LaCosta said his case in municipal court will handle the matter as both zoning and property maintenance issues.

He also said the possibility exists for the owner to appeal the decision during the municipal court hearing.

“If we have to go back and represent something in terms of the art wall, then we will do that,” Schiller said.

“We’re going to make whatever has to happen in terms of the town requirements of me happen,” Schiller continued. “We’re going to talk about art versus graffiti–that’s a very subjective point of view, and art is a very subjective thing. I feel very confident that we’ll be fine.”

Schiller acknowledged that she will need to apply for a variance for signage that is over five percent of the square footage of the property she is leasing.

But she does not believe the exterior mural is graffiti, nor is it signage. She believes it is simply art.

“It was something to give the feel of the inside to the outside, which is fun,” Schiller said.

The owner of Bigg, or Believe in Girls and Guys, said the design came out of a conversation she had with art students from Governor Livingston High School in Berkeley Heights. The 16- and 18-year-old students familiarized themselves with the Bigg brand and subsequently designed their interpretation of the business.

“It was important to me to have the building start to feel like there was a vision here without it being a sign, because I know the town is very particular about the signage and how we should go before them and ask them for anything that’s not on the books,” Schiller said.

The Township’s Ordinances make no specific mention of graffiti other than what is stated above, but within the Zoning chapter, a sign is defined as any device, structure, or object, either constructed, applied, or painted, for visual communications that is used for the purpose of bringing the subject thereof to the attention of others.

“With the name of the business not there, the issue of the signage in the ordinance is fine,” Schiller said.

Initially, the mural featured “BiGG” as part of a tree’s foliage, which may have been a consideration in the matter of signage. These words have since been painted over with the symbols for peace and love.

Schiller is confident that the matter will resolve in her favor.

“My goal is to build a very successful business, and I can’t imagine that the town would not do everything to help me do that,” she said.

According to Schiller, she’s received a great deal of positive feedback about the mural from the community, including people lining up to watch the young artists at work and taking pictures in front of the mural.

Schiller said there is a “great divide” between the commercial area of Park Avenue and the less-trafficked East 2nd Street, and she hopes her business will end this division.

“I’ve never believed it had to be that way,” she said. “I believe that if you put a great product somewhere, people will come.”

Schiller responded to concerns about the mural by saying her business will help the town do well and will generate foot traffic in the area.

“I would hope that you would come and see everything we do, and see what we would do for our business, and in turn the street and the town before you cast judgment on us,” she said.

This article was amended to reflect the following correction made July 30, 2012:

A previous version of this story stated the mural featured “BiGG” as part of a tree’s foliage. These words have since been replaced.

Michelle DL August 12, 2012 at 03:43 PM
I haved lived in Scotch Plains for years, and have seen many failed business attempts on East 2nd Street. I think what the real issue should be here, is do we want vacant businesses and how great is that for the resale of our homes. I think the BIGG store is a great addition, and that young families do not view this as graffiti, but see it as a colorful touch and a needed change to our town. I support my local businesses and I support my local arts! My family and I, will be supporting BIGG based on the fact that they are trying to make positive changes on a commercial street that needs new life pumped back into it!
cnewman August 12, 2012 at 11:11 PM
what do the residents of cranford, westfield and now fanwood know that we don't know? Scotch plains does not have anything to make it an attractive place to shop - some of the stores are interesting, aside from all the nail salons, but there needs to be some effort by some group with some vision, to transform the community. The new rest/bar looks promising, as do two law offices on east second. The town hall, from my perspective, is just a mess and all the different "things" surrounding it look ill-planned. Who is responsibile for coming up with a vision for the town that can help update and unify the shopping area?
I see red August 13, 2012 at 12:28 AM
They know that a thriving business community is healthy for their budgets. I really like your question as election time nears - Better business = better values for the business properties = Lower taxes for the homeowners. Perhaps this town needs some elected officials that are business friendly.
Dianne August 13, 2012 at 11:17 AM
I agree completely with SP resident's post . It is in all SP homeowner's best interest to have the downtown area as vibrant and attractive as possible. I also believe that the no graffiti regulation should be consistently enforced for all downtown businesses. The owners of BIGG could have an attractive sign and have heir 'mural' inside the business.
Piotr P July 22, 2013 at 08:52 AM
I see Bigg Playdate is out of business. I hope its owner has been able to move on to a more welcoming town and that the people who complained so bitterly about its mural now enjoy the sight of an empty storefront.

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