Merced leaders are focusing in on developing welcome signs on Highway 99 — particularly atop the northbound side of the Mission Avenue overpass — as well as a significant marker for downtown Merced.
Though still in the design stage, the now two-year old project is moving along with possible inclusion in upcoming city budget talks set for May 20 and June 3, according to City Manager Steve Carrigan.
Carrigan called for an update on the project at a City Council meeting on Monday night in order to get some feedback from leaders on steps already taken for the sign designs and location priorities.
Council members agreed to pursue the overpass strategy, with Mayor Mike Murphy and Councilman Kevin Blake requesting some renderings and cost estimates on a “welcome arch” for the downtown district.
During the update, Carrigan invited Simon Andrews of Graphic Solutions to present some of the designs and locations developed by the Southern California consulting firm on behalf ofMerced over the past year. It was noted that the firm took into consideration more than 100 community art submissions, proposals and ideas on the project.
“The signs have to be easily interpreted, and the image clear and comprehensible — especially to first time visitors,” Andrews told the council. “So you can’t pack too many things into a sign of this type. We tried to simplify the design to make it really readable for those 3 seconds someone has on the highway. We also wanted to make the imagery meaningful and representative to Merced so it couldn’t be confused with any other place. That was important to us as well … We also wanted consistency with your existing brand.”
Andrews questioned why the city would create a whole new brand when it has an established brand — highlighted by the Merced Theatre tower — already on the directional street signs, on the official city website, and on stationary.
The new designs included an $80,000 to $90,000 overpass idea with the city brand, in UCMerced colors, and a surrounding floral theme of almond blossoms. There was also the same branding for a $40,0000 welcome monument along the 16th street entryway just off of southbound Highway 99. The monument would work in combination with a Caltrans traffic sign on 99 that would include the words “Welcome To Merced,” at an estimated cost of $3,500.
Andrews also introduced an idea of creating four tall pillars, or obelisks, with city branding on all four corners of the intersection of Main and M streets. The idea was an alternative to what is considered a more expensive and difficult to locate “Downtown Archway.” The four pillars would cost anywhere from $126,000 to $166,000.
Councilman Anthony Martinez took exception to that strategy, saying he didn’t recall much advocacy for it during a March meeting he attended with the city’s Arts Commission which is also involved in the design approval process.
“I don’t know if there was a whole lot of momentum behind these pillars,” Martinez said. “I don’t know how we got to these columns in lieu of an archway.”
Carrigan chimed in saying that the commission had plenty of great ideas, but he felt some of the proposals were more intricate and better suited for downtown murals and street art installations. Expense was also a concern. He added that city staff members are still looking into the feasibility of recreating the landmark “Gateway To Yosemite” arch that used to grace west 16th Street in the 1930s when Highway 99 didn’t exist.
Councilman Fernando Echevarria made a request that all signs or monuments produced in the plan should be made with material conducive to graffiti removal, and strong enough to withstand various types of vandalism.
“Vandals are going to go crazy on this,” Echevarria predicted.
Finally, Michael Belluomini, a former Merced City Councilman and early proponent of welcome signs for Merced, stood up and spoke from the public comment podium.
“I urge you to be careful with this,” he warned his former colleagues. “This is something that is going to be around for a very long time. I wouldn’t skimp on it.”
He also said, “I think it reflects badly on the city that we are one of the ones on Highway 99 who do not have a welcome sign.”
Belluomini reminded the council members that back in 2017 a public contest was held to come up with creative designs that would inspire a final product. Belluomini also continued the push — as he has in the past — to keep the involvement and will of community members and stakeholders in the design process.
On Monday night, he presented a sign design composite with imagery suggested from top Top 3 proposals in the public contest.
Here is a timeline of related events produced by Belluomini and highlighted on Monday night:
FEB 6 2017: Council approves subcommittee on signs to work with staff and service clubs on location, design, funding.
MAY 1: Council approves public contest for sign design with a $300 prize ending Oct. 6, 2017.
NOV 6: Subcommittee reports to council 56 sign designs submitted. Five are recommended, with the idea they could combine designs. After sign designs selected, council mentioned they could ask service clubs and private donors to fund sign cost. They also authorized hiring a sign design professional to help.
FEB 20, 2018: Council contracts with professional sign designer to use sign designs submitted, prepare cost estimate, give council process to follow to select a design which includes community/stakeholder participation.
MIDDLE OF 2018: Council forms a new City Arts Commission which is asked to review welcome sign designs.
LATE NOVEMBER 2018: Sign designer submits his recommendations to staff.
LATE DECEMBER 2018: Unsatisfied with the consultant’s design, Belluomini makes a composite sign design based on three of the sign contest submittals that included more symbols of Merced than the designers sign.
MARCH 2019 : The City Arts Commission met to review the welcome sign design submitted by the professional sign designer. The Commission commented that the design looked like mass produced “clip art” rather than original design. From the audience , as a citizen,Belluomini asks if the Commission had seen the sign design that was a composite of several of the sign contest submittals. It had not seen them, and asked to see them.
MAY 6, 2019: Welcome sign is on the agenda of the council.