Palo Alto Weekly

News - October 4, 2013

Private developers to pay for public art

City Council committee to consider Tuesday how program would work

by Elena Kadvany

Palo Alto's Percent for Art Program could soon require private developers to chip in 1 percent of construction costs for public-art projects.

The City Council's Policy and Services Committee on Tuesday, Oct. 8, is set to flesh out the details of the new requirement, which the council endorsed in April.

Since then, the city's Public Art Commission has been discussing the central issues of the program, including how to make it appealing to developers, creating a streamlined process that spans multiple city departments and ensuring that art projects are in line with the city's overarching vision for its public art.

With future private development projects (excluding tenant-improvement projects) over the next three years valued at an estimated $275 million, developers could contribute as much as $2 million toward public art, according to a new staff report.

Percent-for-art programs involving private developments are in place in major California cities, but they have not always gone over well.

Menlo Park launched an ill-fated program in 2002, when the City Council enacted a Percentage for Arts ordinance that required developers who build a commercial, industrial or municipal project worth at least $250,000 to allocate 1 percent of construction costs for an exterior, publicly visible artwork.

But early developments stirred controversy. The first two projects to come under the new law were proposed renovations to a Chevron gas station on El Camino Real and the 7-Eleven on Oak Grove Avenue. Both owners objected to spending 1 percent on art and to the requirement that they find an artist to design and implement the art on their own. Months later in response, the council voted to add an in-lieu option, which allowed developers — instead of including public art on their buildings — to contribute money to a public-art fund that could be pooled to support larger art projects.

But in August 2004, in a surprise move, the Menlo Park council repealed the public-art law, some members denouncing the required fee as an added burden for local businesses. The entire Arts Commission resigned in response and is still inactive.

More than 48 cities in California have a percent-for-art requirement for private developers, said Elise DeMarzo, staff liaison for the Public Art Commission. Santa Monica, which is similar in population to Palo Alto, recently structured its program to apply to commercial projects larger than 7,500 square feet, residential developments of five units or more and remodels larger than 25,000 square feet.

Los Angeles requires that the owner of a commercial or industrial development worth $500,000 or more fund public art according to a fee formula, rather than a percentage, that takes into account square footage and type of project — office, retail, hotel, manufacturing or warehouse.

The staff report to the Policy and Services Committee recommends that Palo Alto's requirement apply to any new commercial development, addition or reconstruction that is more than 10,000 square feet and valued at $200,000 or more. Houses of worship, historic-preservation sites, affordable housing, Palo Alto Unified School District projects, repairs due to natural disaster damage and seismic retrofit projects are exempt. Hospitals and Stanford property within city limits are not exempt.

A well-known public-art piece produced as a collaboration between the city of Los Angeles and a developer is the Chiat/Day building. Also known as the Binoculars Building, advertising agency TBWA/Chiat/Day commissioned two Swedish artists to create a four-story sculpture of binoculars outside the entryway to the agency's West Coast corporate headquarters in Venice.

San Francisco, like many other cities, includes an in-lieu option. Palo Alto also plans to allow for an in-lieu fee, said DeMarzo, who spoke to the commission on Sept. 19.

"Some (developers) I spoke with even said, 'I would rather contribute funds to something off site that's more impactful than try and wrestle with putting artwork in my development when the square footage is so precious. So that seemed to be a common theme," she said.

Palo Alto's in-lieu fee will be calculated at 0.95 percent of estimated construction costs.

Striking a delicate give-and-take balance between city and developer is central to the success of the percent-for-art program. DeMarzo told commissioners that staff has been in discussion with developers to find out what's important to them, namely establishing clear guidelines, starting the process early, allowing developers to have a voice in choosing the art and having the in-lieu option.

If a developer does choose to privately commission a piece of art, it is the developer's responsibility to maintain the artwork, DeMarzo said.

Public-art maintenance is a significant issue; numerous cities, including Berkeley, San Jose, Oakland and Santa Cruz, have increased their municipal requirement to 1.5 or 2 percent, to set aside funds for routine maintenance.

Palo Alto Mayor Greg Scharff and three city council members wrote a memo in April arguing that Palo Alto should do the same.

A public-art master plan is also in the works and would delineate Palo Alto's public art priorities and mission to make sure developers' art choices are aligned with the city's vision. Developing the plan would engage the public in discussions about the future of public art in Palo Alto and ensure there is a clearly outlined planning process for developers, DeMarzo said at a special public art commission meeting on Sept. 23. Developers would have to come to the art commission multiple times through the process for review and approval.

Various public-art commissioners have expressed interest in considering architecture as public art, but DeMarzo told the commission on Sept. 19 that including architecture is too complicated at this stage of planning.

The program will be reviewed after it's been in place for about 18 months, and the architecture element reconsidered at that time, said Darlene Katsanes, city program assistant.

Palo Alto has long made attempts at increasing public art, setting aside a percentage of city-funded construction costs since 2005. The municipal percent-for-art program has funded projects such as an 11.5-foot-high, granite arch-like sculpture by Bay Area artist Bruce Beasley, recently installed at the renovated Mitchell Park Library and Community Center; the fantastical tree mural by Jeff Petersen inside the Palo Alto Children's Library; and "Streaming," a modern art interpretation of water streams, created in aluminum by Ceevah Sobel at the San Francisquito Creek pump station on East Bayshore Road. In the next three years, a $150,000 budget will be divided between and spent on six identified art projects, according to a staff report.

The Policy and Services Committee will meet at 6 p.m. on Oct. 8 in City Hall. Its recommendations will go to the full council for review at a later date.

Editorial Assistant Elena Kadvany can be emailed at ekadvany@paweekly.com.

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