Splashes of color in Sonoma Springs area prove polarizing

Several businesses’ colorful new makeovers have some residents of The Springs area north of Sonoma seeing red.|

A local artist employing bright rainbow colors to revitalize a number of Sonoma Valley businesses, including a consignment store and ice cream shop, has set off a heated debate about the transformation underway in the diverse community north of tony Sonoma.

The fresh paint has been welcomed by some as a vibrant new look in the series of towns known as The Springs off Highway 12, the busy roadway that connects Santa Rosa to Sonoma. But others have derided the change as tacky, gaudy and ill-fitting for the gateway to one of Sonoma County’s premier Wine Country destinations.

The issue has become a political football for two women expected to face off for the second time in a bid for county supervisor next year.

The firestorm erupted this week amid the remodel of Plain Jane’s Consignments and La Michoacana ice cream shop, which have used a county facade improvement loan program to pay Sebastopol artist and designer Rico Martin to do a “facelift” on the building they share. The work, on a pair of highly visible businesses, started three weeks ago and was expected to wrap up this week.

The work added to other bright remodels Martin has recently done on a pair of other nearby businesses. He has four more shops he plans to work on.

With the work underway this month, Susan Gorin, chairwoman of the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors, has been taking hits from some residents as Martin covered the pale rose building housing the ice cream shop and consignment store in a bright orange base with yellow, lime green, pink and purple motifs, a design that has many residents seeing red.

Gorin said she has no control over the designs and was careful in an interview this week not to take sides on the issue. But one of her longtime political rivals, Gina Cuclis, has come out squarely against the look, suggesting the blame lies with the county and Gorin.

“This does not represent The Springs,” Cuclis said.

“It’s a big change that did not go through a big, full-on public process,” she said. “Should one designer from Sebastopol and a supervisor from Santa Rosa get to decide?”

Cuclis, a longtime Springs resident, wrote a recent column in a local newspaper, saying Martin did not follow design guidelines created in the community more than two decades ago.

Cuclis, who has filed paperwork stating her intention to run next year against Gorin, said her criticism has nothing to do with the 2016 election. Instead, she said, it’s about what residents want the area to look like in the future.

Gorin will meet with residents Monday to discuss the projects. She said the county has no control over the color palette. Under county rules, a business is not required to do a design review when repainting an existing building.

“It’s not up to me. It’s up to the property owners and designers to go through the process,” Gorin said this week, pointing out that the mural on the side of Broadway Market wasn’t required to seek approval either, even though the business also used money from the facade improvement program.

Gorin said she’s hearing both from people who like and hate Martin’s designs. Overall, the artist has eight projects along the busy highway, where more than 30,000 vehicles pass through daily.

The debate reflects a community grappling with how it revitalizes itself, including large infrastructure upgrades now underway, commercial remodels and other moves to make the area more attractive to residents and motorists. The Springs, once a resort destination just outside Sonoma, lost its shine over the decades but endured as a more affordable community, especially for low-income and Latino residents.

The remodel of Plain Jane’s and La Michoacana - one the artist acknowledges was meant to celebrate Latino culture - appears, however, to have hit a nerve.

Many critics took their complaints to social media in the past week, calling Martin’s designs an “eyesore” and “over the top.” The most biting comment compared it to a “tweaker Tijuana theme.”

Martin’s plan to add a large piñata-style chicken above El Brinquito, the Springs market known for its grilled chicken, has drawn vocal opposition. One resident started a petition to try to stop his work.

“That’s not their call,” said Martin, who complained the criticism was mean-spirited and politically motivated.

He started months ago at Armando’s Auto Center, painting it a bright orange and adding colorful Mexican papel picado art designs. He then moved on to the Tienda Y Panaderia Iniguez, covering the dim peach-colored market exterior earlier this year with a more vibrant sunflower yellow with white and seafoam green accents.

Although some residents complained they weren’t informed about the designs, he said he made numerous presentations in the community, including at La Luz and the Springs Community Alliance.

“I got an overwhelming positive response,” he said.

Cuclis, however, said those meetings weren’t well advertised or well attended. She said they also were not uniformly supportive of Martin’s designs. She added she wasn’t surprised with the comments online.

“I understand their viewpoint, but I don’t think they understand the project or the purpose,” Martin said. “It’s to bring attention to the businesses.”

In a way, he’s already accomplished that goal.

Janie Raymond, owner of Plain Jane’s Consignments, said she’s been getting new customers who say they didn’t notice her store until the new coat of bright paint. She’s been there for 19 years, Raymond said.

While many of her customers told her they liked the building, she said neighbors have been complaining to her about the colors.

“People have called me very angry about it,” Raymond said. One woman came into the store to show her text messages exchanged with friends about how much they hated the design, she said.

“I knew there would be people who didn’t like it,” she said. “But I didn’t expect it to be this emotional.

“I now know how Picasso felt.”

She and Teresita Fernandez, owner of La Michoacana, secured about $20,000 from the county’s facade improvement loan program to pay for the work. Fernandez previously had hired Martin to update the interior of her store. He also designed her second shop in Novato.

Raymond said she’s now talking to the landlord about whether to repaint or make other changes. “We’re trying to decide where we go from here,” she said while sitting behind her shop earlier this week.

She said they’ll have to wait until discussions at the community meeting Monday. Put on by the Springs Community Alliance in collaboration with Gorin’s office, it will be held from 7 to 9 p.m. at Altimira Middle School.

“I don’t want to ever do anything to offend the community,” Raymond said. “That was never my intent. That’s why I was shocked when someone called me and said I should be ashamed.”

Fernandez defended the use of colors at her shop. “I am an ice cream store. It’s the happy place to go,” she said.

Customer Judy Helfand, on hand with her 8-year-old grandson, agreed. Helfand said she’s glad to see splashes of color in The Springs. “People are putting energy into making things look better,” she said.

Roxana Fuentes, who was walking along Highway 12 with her two children and other family members, said the buildings seem out of place and do not represent Latino culture.

“I like bright colors, but this is very gaudy,” said Fuentes, who is originally from Guatemala and lives in The Springs.

Robert Iniguez Sr. said customers seem to like the work done on his son’s market, just south of the Barking Dog Roasters cafe. People have stopped by to take pictures and request Martin’s phone number. No one has complained about the design, he said.

“People walk by with their dogs and comment,” said Iniguez, who likes the work done on Plain Jane’s and La Michoacana.

“I don’t understand why they don’t like it. It’s beautiful,” he said.

The community is quite divided over the work, said Rich Lee, chairman of the Springs Community Alliance, which sent Gorin a letter to express its concerns that county guidelines weren’t followed.

“It might seem negative,” Fernandez said. “But something good can come of this … coming together and taking ownership of an area that has been abandoned.”

You can reach Staff Writer Eloísa Ruano González at 521-5458 or eloisa.gonzalez@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @eloisanews.

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