Sioux Falls artist to paint “largest mural in the state” on side of downtown parking ramp

Published: Aug. 16, 2023 at 7:56 PM CDT
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SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (Dakota News Now) - A massive 14,000 square foot slab of concrete is one of the first things people see when they cross the Big Sioux River into the heart of downtown Sioux Falls.

The East 10th Street parking ramp is an unavoidable eyesore that represents a bleak if not embarrassing chapter in the city’s recent history. Safe to say, it is not a source of pride for Sioux Falls residents.

But in a few weeks, what is likely seen as a monstrosity to most could be a thing of beauty — depending on the eye of the beholder.

”It’s going to be something that’s transformed into one of the most Instagramable sites in our community,” Mayor Paul TenHaken said at Wednesday’s announcement of a mural that will cover the entire south side of the ramp’s facade.

It will be the largest mural in the state, according to TenHaken and Walter Portz, a long-time Sioux Falls resident that designed and will paint the artwork. Both said the project will be completed “before the snow flies.” More specifically, between Sept. 12 and Oct. 1, according to Portz.

“I think we’re going to make lemonade out of a tough situation right now that will hopefully turn into a beautiful development someday,” TenHaken said.

Oh, that development. Six years ago, the city and then-mayor Mike Huether announced the project as a 15-story residential and retail complex called “Village on the River” that would have been the tallest building in Sioux Falls. Eighteen months later, now under the leadership of TenHaken, the city terminated a development agreement. The hulking gray structure has sat there for four years.

Portz has lived in Sioux Falls most of his life and finally decided he wanted to do something about it. A few weeks ago, he was chatting with downtown business owner Vernon Brown, a former city councilor about the mural Portz painted on the side of a building in the new Sioux Steel District, which sits aside the Levitt Shell.

“I just said, ‘let’s get something hung up there, let’s go,’” Portz said. “It’s just been sitting there for years.

”For a street artist, that’s the ultimate thing, is, like, I want my work on that wall. And that (the parking ramp) is the biggest canvas I’ll ever see.”

This led to a conversation with TenHaken, who inherited the real estate mess after being elected in 2018. TenHaken and city leaders had mulled a possible mural before but never green-lighted one.

Portz presented TenHaken and other city leaders several designs — some bright and simple, some dark and edgy, and at least one bursting with all kinds of color.

They landed on a mostly orange-and-blue design that pays homage to Sioux Falls landmarks like the the waterfalls at Falls Park (the namesake of the city), St. Joseph’s Cathedral and the Old Courthouse clock tower. It also throws in some nods to past public art in downtown Sioux Falls, like “Sea Dream,” a work by local artist Steve Thomas.

“Art is subjective,” TenHaken said. “I showed (the mural design) to somebody yesterday. They said, ‘well, that’s ugly.’ And I said, ‘well, art is subjective.’ I think it’s incredible.”

Asked how Portz’s design was finally the mural that won city leaders’ affection, TenHaken said, “We’re at this point because I don’t think anybody can look at this piece and say, ‘that’s controversial, and we should not be putting something like that on a city building.’

“It’s not (controversial). It’s awesome. It’s perfect.”

TenHaken noted some of Portz’s work in the past has been “edgy,” and he told Portz during the design process that the ramp was not a canvas for a “statement piece.”

Portz agreed, saying it had to be for everyone in the city.

The mural had to be universally accepted by people beyond the city limits, TenHaken said, “so the guy from Pukwana (a town of 200 in the middle of South Dakota) coming in from McDonald’s just could look at it and say, ‘oh, that’s cool, instead of saying, ‘what are they doing in Sioux Falls?’”

TenHaken said that over the last 10 to 12 years, the city has continued to see more and more excitement around the arts, with big catalysts the last two years being the Sculpture Walk and the Levitt Shell, a music venue that stages 50 free concerts throughout the summer for up to 3,000 people at times. The shows and ability to book artists is made possible by free-will donations of the attendees and private donors.

That’s exactly how Portz’s mural will be funded. The Washington Pavilion — the centerpiece facility and organization of the city’s art scene — is paying Portz $30,000 for the project, via an anonymous donor and downtown-based digital media company MarketBeat, owned by local arts advocate Matt Paulson, who has helped fund numerous downtown arts projects.

“We have to do something to beautify the heart of our downtown,” Smith said. “It can be something significant. It can be spectacular. Let’s make it happen. We were eager and excited to be a small part of it and push it forward.”

The city will pay for the priming of the concrete wall to provide a smooth surface for Portz to paint. He estimates it will take 15-18 five-gallon buckets of paint, and he’ll be on lifts as high as 65 feet. The artist expects the painting to be completed in 3-4 weeks. His goal is Sept. 12 and no later than Oct. 1.

“I still, as it stands here, have no idea how it can get done,” TenHaken said. “That’s what makes artists incredible at their craft. They see something like this and get excited. They look at the possibility.”

TenHaken said the mural is anything but an indicator that the city is giving up on the former Village on the River property, TenHaken said. In fact, he contends the opposite, saying the mural makes the building more profitable.

“We’re standing on the most developable, appealing property in this entire community,” TenHaken said. “With 400 parking spots and the ability to go up multiple floors in the heart of one of the most vibrant downtowns in the Upper Midwest. It’s very attractive.”

The city has had “good conversations” with potential developers, the mayor said, but it’s been difficult to strike a deal because of interest rates and inflation that has skyrocketed since the Covid-19 pandemic, which occurred a year after the Village on the River deal fell through. TenHaken proclaimed he fully expects that before the paint on the mural fades — which Portz estimated to take ten years — there will be an “incredible development.”

“I’m really excited to be at this phase, because this, to me, is the last step before we announce a development on this property,” TenHaken said.

The building sits on the street that connects the hub of downtown — Phillips Avenue — to a 10-acre plot of land across the river that the city recently purchased. TenHaken announced the “Riverline District” deal in February, and how it will be used has not yet been announced, with no timeline known. A new baseball stadium, a multi-purpose sports facility, and more retail and residential facilities all possibilities listed on a now-close online public survey.

Asked if the ramp and its mural could help serve as a figurative bridge between the oldest and still busiest part of downtown to the new district, TenHaken said, “I think we’re seeing with the arts in our community is they’re pushing out of just the core of Phillips Avenue and Main Street — whether that’s an extension of Sculpture Walk whether that’s moving murals out. Downtown itself is simply jumping the river itself and moving east, so this is a logical extension of that, too.”

Portz is an avid skateboarder who is also playing a major role in the design of a new city skate park near downtown that is set for groundbreaking in September. He now resides in Charlotte, North Carolina, but stays with in-laws when working on projects like the murals at Levitt and the parking ramp.

“More than anything, I love inserting something interesting and cool into the community, which is why I worked on the skate park so much of my life,” Portz said.

“In 1987, when I moved here, this town was not what it is today. And watching that evolution and being a part of that evolution — that’s the best part, because this wall and the skate park will be here for everybody when I’m not here.”