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Way-finding signs will be redone, but utility boxes won’t

6/15/17 | By Josh Davis, Associate Editor

 (June 15, 2017) Revamping the dated way-finding signs in downtown Berlin is a great idea, according to members of the Historic District Commission, but placing several sidewalk appliques and painting utility boxes in the Victorian sector bright, cartoonish colors proved not to be quite as popular.

All three items were on the agenda of a Historic District Commission meeting last Wednesday, when a larger-than-usual crowd was in attendance.

The discussion started as outgoing commission Chairwoman Carol Rose delivered the news that none of the aforementioned items could be voted on, based on a decision by Town Attorney David Gaskill.

Instead, town officials were there to discuss the items as a courtesy, Allen said during a somewhat tense exchange.

“It’s really the town’s decision, but what we’re looking for tonight is some feedback from the Historic District Commission as well as other members of the audiences regarding the approach,” Allen said.

“When you say town, you mean the mayor and council would make the decision?” Rose asked.

“Actually, I think it’s a staff-level decision,” Allen said.

“And that would mean you?” Rose asked.

“Yeah,” Allen said.

Stephen Decatur High School teacher Mary Berquist said she approached Economic and Community Development Director Ivy Wells about a summer arts project that would earn community service hours for students. Wells suggested painting the utility boxes, and samples were provided to members of the commission.

They were not well received.

“We’re in a historic district and a lot of us own historic homes,” commission member Robert Poli said. “[Changes to the district] have to be befitting of the area.”

Historic Williamsburg, for instance, makes it a point to downplay its modern infrastructure, Poli said.

“A utility box really should be hidden by hedges or shrubs – it shouldn’t even be visible,” Poli said. “Now we’re putting colors to it and it’s going to stand out in front of historic buildings and homes. That’s what my issue is.

“Utility boxes should be hidden. They really don’t provide a thing to the town,” Poli continued. “I know it’s a great project for the kids, but maybe we should focus on … doing artwork somewhere else – not on the utility boxes.”

The other commission members agreed.

Mary Moore invoked the late heiress and philanthropist Rachel Lambert “Bunny” Mellon, who once said “nothing should be noticed.”

“It’s certainly great for the kids. I have no problem with that,” she said. “[But] Berlin’s charm is we are not Ocean City, and to me that would be more befitting in a place like Ocean City.”

Rose said if she owned a home in the historic district and saw a brightly colored utility box outside, she would “have a heart attack.”

“The other concern would be the maintenance of them – what would they look like after a few years after weather [damaged them]? And who would maintain them?” Laura Stearns said.

Wells said town officials had asked her to look into having the boxes painted, adding part of Berlin’s mandate as a designated Main Street and Arts and Entertainment District was to provide public art.

Allen later clarified the utility boxes were her idea.   

“I’d really like to involve the students in some kind of public art project art … we have a group of students that are willing to offer their services,” Wells said. “We’re trying to bring more public art downtown and this is a perfect example. If you could think of any other project in the downtown arts and entertainment district [where] we could add public art, that would be most helpful.”

Robin Tomaselli, vice president of the Berlin Arts and Entertainment Committee, said she had just the thing. Her committee has been working on a public mural on the Berlin Visitor’s Center for well over a year, and just two of the five planned panels have been finished.

“We would welcome students from Stephen Decatur to be part of that panel project,” she said. “In addition, there are all kinds of other locations in town. Henry Park is an area that desperately needs a piece of public art that is uplifting, and [that] could be a real way to connect the two communities.

“We would be happy to work in conjunction with Ivy and Mary to accomplish a really significant piece of public art,” Tomaselli said.

Rose said everyone was in agreement there would be something for the students to work on, and Bruder Hill owner Shelly Bruder said she would love to have a piece of public art on the side of her building, on Commerce Street.

“Clearly the utility boxes are not something that you guys are interested in. It sounds like a lot of members of the audience also think that’s not such a great idea,” Allen said. “We’ve got lots of other options. We can pursue those.”

After the meeting, Allen reiterated the utility-box painting would not be pursued. She said the appliques, essentially decals on the sidewalk that would point visitors to different downtown shops, met a similar fate.  

“We got a lot negative comments on the appliques. The commission didn’t feel it was very much in keeping with the historic nature of the town,” Allen said. “Essentially, the appliques aren’t going to happen. I don’t think there’s any reason to put something down that had such a strong negative reaction.”

Allen said an alternative approach was being pursued that would be similar to planter boxes. She said Tomaselli was developing those.

“Rather than doing individual appliques at key intersections, we’re looking at something with planter boxes and individual signs for specific businesses,” Allen said, comparing the signs to shingles on the box.

She said the existing way-finding signs, painted reddish-brown and placed on poles at a handful of intersections, were too subtle. They will be updated with color-coding that is more eye-catching and in line with a scheme consistent in designated Maryland Main Streets.

“That’s going to happen. I think we got some good comments and we’re going to proceed with that,” Allen said.

“For me, it was a really good meeting, because a lot of folks stood up and came up with some great suggestions,” Allen added. “It was a really cool way to engage the business community and the historic district commission at the same time.”

Rose, also after the meeting, concurred.

“Everyone in the room – business owner or community member – seemed to feel that having this discussion was extremely helpful and thought that good things will come from it,” she said.

She underscored the commission support for having Stephen Decatur students work on some type of project – so long as it was not painting utility boxes.

“We think it’s a fantastic idea for them to be able to have a project to work on to get their community service,” she said. 

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