Vandalism or art? City seeks solutions to rainbow-painted crosswalks

The crosswalk at Seventh and Gold Street in May 2017 before being painted back to white by the City and Borough of Juneau. (Susan Warner | Courtesy Photo)

The crosswalk at Seventh and Gold Street in May 2017 before being painted back to white by the City and Borough of Juneau. (Susan Warner | Courtesy Photo)

Rainbow-painted crosswalks downtown have the City and Borough of Juneau trying to find a compromise between public safety and creative expression.

The white lines on Seventh Street and Gold Street crosswalk have been decorated over with rainbow-colors five times since last year, and a crosswalk on Calhoun Avenue was just discovered painted Tuesday morning. The city said it has to repaint the crosswalk white for safety reasons, each time costing $300.

City Manager Rorie Watt on Tuesday sent out an open letter to the public, pleading with the unknown late-night painter to “please stop.”

Watt said the white-striped crosswalk design is there because it’s a visual cue for drivers to look for pedestrians, and also for pedestrians to know where to cross. Watt noted that it is vandalism according to federal laws to paint over the lines, but he encouraged the artist to reach out to the CBJ staff to discuss a civic project.

Assembly member Jesse Kiehl — who has spoken out on Twitter against cameras installed in the area to deter the painter— said he agrees with the letter from Watt and thinks it could lead to a solution. Watt said a security camera was placed at the Seventh Street and Gold Street crosswalk to deter people from painting, which he said he believed encouraged the anonymous painter or painters to go paint somewhere else. The camera has been taken down this week after Watt said he received complaints about it.

“I think it is great that the City Manager is looking for a win-win for everyone,” Kiehl said. “I think what we really need is a solution that lets neighborhoods make improvements and do cool things and that people are still safe.”

Watt explains in the letter that the city paints its crosswalks in accordance with the Federal Highway Administration Manual on Uniform Control Devices. The MUTCD is a federal regulation on how crosswalks are painted. Department of Transportation and Public Facilities spokeswoman Aurah Landau said the state follows the MUTCD guidelines for acceptable coloring and texture options.

Some residents of the neighborhood by the crosswalks agree that public safety should be the city’s focus, but also feel the painting does add some pop to the oftentimes grey city streetscape.

Heather Johnson-Smith, who walking on Franklin Street Wednesday, said she likes the colors, but added safety should be the first concern.

“I think it is pretty and the colors are great,” Johnson-Smith said. “If it is a safety issue and the city sees it as a safety issue, I can understand (why they painted over them). I have only walked by it. I haven’t driven by it, so I don’t know if it is more distracting.”

Caplan Anderson, sitting outside his residence downtown, said he believes other safety issues around town should be a priority, not the crosswalk.

“If in fact the city has limited resources, they would want to maybe spend them on trying to clean up that little corner over there,” Anderson said pointing toward a residence owned by James and Kathleen Barrett, the former owners of the Bergmann Hotel, and two other properties in the immediate area that are or have been rife with criminal activity.

The Bergmann Hotel has been shut down since March 2017 and the Breffni Place Properties is currently trying to sell the property. Police have responded to multiple calls regarding theft, drug use, and prostitution in the area of Harris Street, and just this week, there was gunfire on that neighborhood block following an altercation. Police have also executed two search warrants at the residence in the past year and recently found stolen property there.

Bridget LaPenter, who was walking her dog heading up toward the Governor’s Mansion, agrees with the city, but also thinks there are other, more important problems that need to be handled first.

“I understand why the city does not want (rainbow crosswalks) for safety concerns,” LaPenter said. “But it seems like there are other priorities, including random gunfire that should be addressed before crosswalks become the main focus.”

Watt said in a phone interview with the Empire Wednesday that the city is always dealing with many issues at once and that the crosswalk is simply one of them.”

“I think the public should know that we are always working on a lot of issues,” Watt said. “It is easy to look at this and think ‘where is your priority?’ But, at any time we have a zillion things going on.”

Whoever is painting over the crosswalks, Jim Stey, who was going for a walk downtown on Wednesday, said should find another way to display the art that does not cost the city.

“The city has a valid point that it costs a lot of money to repaint those,” Stey said. “I support the LGBT community and everybody who paints those things, but I think that they should do it in a way that does not cost money.”

Ryan Stanley, who lives just a few blocks away from the Seventh Street and Gold Street crosswalk said he believes it is a tough situation for the parties involved because it walks a fine line between what the city and the people want.

“It’s clear that it is one of those weird things that nobody knows how to deal with,” Stanley said. “People that will knee-jerk toward safety will look at the code and the laws. If somebody gets hit in the crosswalk, it is a pretty big deal. Combine that with the general of how do people in the community get their community the way they want it.”

Mayor Ken Koelsch said he believes the best way to resolve the issue is for both parties to get together and talk about what can be done.

“I think the people who are interested in the crosswalks should meet with the city before they are going to paint,” Koelsch said in a phone interview Tuesday. “For safety reasons, I want them to discuss this with us.”

• Contact reporter Gregory Philson at or call at 523-2265. Follow him on Twitter at @GTPhilson.

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