Graffiti costing frustrated Ann Arbor property owners thousands of dollars
Angela J. Cesere | AnnArbor.com
Although some business owners believe they’ve identified at least two of the taggers, city officials said graffiti is taking a back seat to more serious crimes, such as the recent spike in break-ins.
Rob Cleveland, who owns a building at 220 Felch St., said he understands the decision but he’s frustrated by his building being continually targeted by vandals.
Cleveland said he paid $3,000 to have the building cleaned of all graffiti on March 10. However, when he went back just four days later, it was once again covered with graffiti.
“It’s a huge setback and it takes the incentive to pour money into the building right out of you,” he said.
While the evidence of tagging can readily be found on downtown businesses, property owners and city officials alike emphasize that graffiti has become a citywide problem.
It’s something that the city government has attempted to clean up by enforcing a city ordinance.
On Nov. 1, the city’s community standards officers began citing property owners who had graffiti on their buildings. Cleveland said he’s received a citation and it was immensely frustrating.
City officials he spoke to regarding the citation were sympathetic to his situation, but had to issue the citation, he said.
City Administrator Steve Powers said property owners in the city have complained to officials that they’re being cited for a graffiti problem they don’t believe that they have any control over.
However, with a police force that’s been significantly downsized in recent years, graffiti is not at the top of the force’s list of concerns.
“The city did devote resources to the graffiti eradication,” Powers said. “The police department needed to divert its resources to other crimes, specifically the breaking-and-entering crimes that were occurring.”
Under the city’s ordinance, it’s up to property owners to clean up their buildings after a citation has been issued. The ordinance is complaint-driven and property owners have seven days to remove graffiti after a citation has been given.
Cleveland said he feels taggers are particularly targeting 220 Felch, which he bought three years ago. Not only was the freshly cleaned building targeted last Wednesday, but the skylights he installed on the top of the building were painted as well. The taggers went so far as to etch their marks into the glass, which Cleveland said he’s now planning to replace.
Cleveland said he's heard through the grapevine that property owners in the city are aware of who at least some of the taggers are, but many are reluctant to go to police.
Cleveland and Jim Chaconas, part owner of The State Theater, both reported spending thousands of dollars cleaning their buildings. Chaconas said gallons of paint are now just kept at the building to paint over tags that pop up during the middle of the night.
Chaconas said the “craziness” of Ann Arbor is one of the best traits of the city, but he wishes that taggers — none of the owners or city officials referred to the vandals as artists — would go after the backs of buildings instead of storefronts.
“We’re trying to rebuild retail in this town as it is,” he said. “The image has to be up there in order to keep Main Street, Liberty Street and State Street alive.”
Much of the problem could be solved if the city had police officers do foot patrols down city sidewalks at night, Chaconas said. He said many property owners that he’s talked to have been requesting more foot patrols.
While the expense of cleaning up the graffiti hurts businesses and property owners throughout the city, Chaconas said the community has pulled together and done its best to clean up the tags.
If that diligence faded away, he’s concerned about what the city would end up looking like.
“It starts to make the town look trashy,” he said. “Any bridge, the backs of buildings; if people weren’t as diligent, these (taggers) might make the town look really bad.”
There are resources to help business owners take down graffiti, said Susan Pollay, director of the Downtown Development Authority.
She said the DDA is continuing a grant that allows downtown business owners or property owners to visit Fingerle Lumber or Anderson’s Paint and receive free anti-graffiti supplies.
Pollay said the Mayor’s Downtown Marketing Task Force met last week and graffiti was a major agenda item. Ann Arbor police Deputy Chief John Seto was in attendance and he was made aware of property owners’ concerns regarding police presence downtown and the rest of the city.
While graffiti might not be the most dangerous crime, it is hurting Ann Arbor, according to Pollay. She said police have told her that they’re looking to catch taggers in the act because vandalism is otherwise hard case to prosecute.
Seeing the tags all over town is disconcerting for many Ann Arbor residents, she said.
“All of us have enormous pride in our community and we love our town,” she said. “We don’t want to see people desecrating it just for the sake of desecrating it. It’s not without pain when I see a building that’s been defaced just so people can announce themselves.”
Perhaps the best way to keep the graffiti problem from spreading, and a possible way to limit it, is simply keeping up the effort to paint over tags, Pollay said. The diligence that Chaconas spoke about is one of the things that discourages vandals from coming back to the same buildings over and over again.
She pointed to Republic Parking as an example. Every day, maintenance crews walk through the company’s garages cleaning up debris and looking for any graffiti or vandalism that’s been committed.
“They do such a good job and it’s one way to keep that part from being tagged over and over (because vandals know their work will be erased),” she said.
However, being victimized repeatedly has left Cleveland discouraged.
After having the building cleaned and then tagged again 72 hours later, he’s struggling to see the point in spending thousands to clean up his building when he knows the taggers will likely be back.
He knows he can’t blame the police because their staffing levels are low and they have other priorities. He knows he can’t blame city officials for citing him because that’s the law. But, spending thousands of dollars over and over again to clean up the building will surely run him out of business, he said.
“I’m not smoking cigars and lighting them with $50 bills. I bought the building because it made good sense, and I have good tenants that are as frustrated as I am,” he said.
“It’s harder to do business when it looks like you’re doing business out of a crackhouse.”
Cleveland is offering $2,500 to anyone who provides information to him or the Ann Arbor police that leads to a conviction for the vandalizing of his building. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.