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Escondido might kill public art fee to spur development

by North County Times

Escondido’s public art program has been praised for making the city a more attractive place, but some City Council members say they might suspend or eliminate it to encourage more economic development and job creation.

Developers, who must pay public art fees on all projects larger than 2,000 square feet, have contributed more than $2 million since the program was established 25 years ago. That money has paid for more than 20 art pieces that professional artists have erected all over the city, from rural parks to urban intersections.

Council members don’t dispute that public art has a benefit, but they directed staff in June to explore eliminating any fees that might discourage developers from choosing Escondido during a severe economic downturn, including the public art fee.

City officials say that developers rarely complain about paying the public art fee, but council members say the city must do everything it can to attract new projects.

“I think we need to be as competitive as we can,” said Mayor Sam Abed, explaining that most other cities don’t charge a public art fee. “Investors are looking for a viable project, and any extra expense can make a difference.”

Council members have also criticized some of the pieces and argued that the city already has an abundance of public art. They have also stressed that the program would most likely be revived when the economy recovers.

But supporters contend that public art fees are minuscule in comparison to fees for traffic signals or sewer hook-ups. They also say the program attracts developers instead of discouraging them, because public art makes Escondido a significantly more attractive and interesting place.

In addition, supporters say public art can enhance a city’s reputation and attract tourists.

Examples include the “Cardiff Kook” statue, which has recently put Encinitas in the national spotlight, and a sculpture in Escondido’s Kit Carson Park by Niki de Saint Phalle that has attracted visitors from around the world.

“The idea behind the program was to enhance the community’s reputation and make it more attractive to business,” said former Escondido Mayor Jerry Harmon, who played a key role in creating the program. “The fundamental logic was that anything you can do to make the city more attractive is a great thing.”

The council is scheduled to decide the program’s fate at its Sept. 14 meeting.

Long-lasting beauty

Supporters of the program say it has added to Escondido’s reputation as a city committed to the arts, which began when city voters agreed in 1985 to spend $81 million on the California Center for the Arts, Escondido, which opened nine years later.

That reputation and the art pieces themselves have been a boon for Escondido, said Natalie Mates, a member of the city’s public arts commission, which helps choose and coordinate the works.

“Public art makes a community more lively and beautiful, which attracts new residents and developers,” said Mates. “They might not even know it, but the ambiance affects them.”

Supporters say the city has many locations left that would benefit from public art, such as the barren and crime-prone flood control channel that Councilwoman Olga Diaz wants to transform into a creek walk frequented by families and tourists.

Diaz said she’d be open to reducing the fees paid by developers, but would oppose suspending or eliminating the program.

“This is one of the only ways we get nice things that last for the long term,” said Diaz, explaining that public art pieces are sturdy structures built to last for decades outdoors.

But Susan Pollack, the city’s public art consultant, said that even a reduction of the fees seems unnecessary.

“We have never had a developer choose not to do a project because of the public art fee,” said Pollack. “It’s pennies on the dollar compared to all the other fees they pay.”

Developers must pay 30 cents for every square foot they build beyond 2,000, so the public art fee for a 50,000-square-foot project would be $14,400.

By comparison, paying for a new traffic signal or road widening can cost $500,000 or more. And sewer and water fees can approach $1 million, depending on the infrastructure in place beneath a large project.

Squeezing the golden goose

Land-use attorney Dave Ferguson, who has worked with developers planning large projects in Escondido for decades, agrees that public art fees aren’t large enough to kill projects. But he said the unusually bad economy might make it a good idea to suspend the program, which he characterized as worthwhile in a good economy.

“Right now, it’s more important to attract business than it is to have more art,” said Ferguson, noting that developers have already given the city a lot of money for public art. “I think it’s wise to avoid squeezing the golden goose too hard.”

Councilman Mike Morasco agreed that maintaining the program was about priorities, contending that the city must focus its scarce resources on public safety and infrastructure during a revenue crisis.

“Unfortunately, there’s got to be a hierarchy of needs, and public art falls a little on the low side,” Morasco said.

Jim Crone, a commercial developer and broker, also complained that the city doesn’t give developers enough flexibility.

Developers can choose to pay for an art piece within their project, or they can contribute to the city’s public art fund, which accumulates money from multiple developers to pay for large art pieces.

Since the program was established, 11 developers have spent more than $300,000 on art projects that were erected as part of their developments. Examples include “Time Disc” at the Cypress Court assisted living center on North Broadway, and “The Bakers” in front of Fornaca Bakery on Aldergrove Avenue.

Meanwhile, the city has collected and spent an additional $1.6 million on eight much larger projects, many of which include multiple art pieces. They include “Pillars of the Community,” which features several large pillars on South Escondido Boulevard between Sixth and 15th avenues, and Vinehenge, an interactive children’s project in Grape Day Park.

But Crone said developers must make their choice before construction starts, which prevents them from shifting gears if an idea for art within their project emerges during construction.

Councilman Ed Gallo also criticized some of the pieces erected with public art money. In particular, he complained that the elaborate “River of Light” piece on Grand Avenue doesn’t flood the street with flowing beams as promised.

“It looked great on paper, but in practice it’s worthless,” Gallo said.

Pollack agreed the piece was a disappointment, but she said all of the other pieces in Escondido had been executed effectively.

She also explained that it would be nearly impossible to create pieces that everyone likes.

“Not everybody is going to love everything, just like in a museum,” she said.

And Gallo said he’s a big fan of a $200,000 bronze sculpture city officials plan to erect this fall on South Escondido Boulevard to create a new southern gateway for the city.

“In my opinion, that’s well worth the money,” said Gallo. “We’re going to have to wrestle with this.”

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