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Palo Alto expands public-art program

originally posted by Palo Alto Online
November 22, 213

Palo Alto’s vocal art critics will soon have plenty to cheer, jeer, laugh and complain about thanks to the City Council’s decision on Tuesday to greatly expand the city’s public-art program.

By an 8-0 vote, with Councilman Pat Burt absent, an enthusiastic council voted to create a public-art requirement for new commercial and residential developments. Under the new rule, new commercial developments that are greater than 10,000 square feet and that have a construction cost of $200,000 or more will have to contribute 1 percent of the construction cost for public art before they get approved. The 1 percent rule will also apply to residential projects of five units or more.

The new program greatly expands the current “percent for the art” program, which applies only to public construction projects. In developing it, city staff reviewed similar programs from about 50 California cities that require private developers to chip in for public art. San Francisco, San Jose and Oakland are among cities that have comparable public-art programs, while Santa Monica now requires a 2 percent contribution for art.

The council approved the sweeping change with much gusto and little debate, following the recommendation of its Policy and Services Committee. Councilwoman Liz Kniss, who chairs the committee, said the program will “set new standards” for local art.

“A city really reflects its soul by its art,” Kniss said. “Even though, as we discussed it, people have different ideas of what the soul looks like.”

The city is no stranger to controversy when it comes to public art. Its existing collection includes an eclectic mix of abstract, surreal and downright bizarre, including the egg-shaped, silicon-coated “Digital DNA” sculpture at Lytton Plaza; the “Go Mama” sculpture on California Avenue, which features a cartoonish face, long eyelashes and a torso consisting of of a baby’s head; and the “Body of Urban Myth” fountain in Sheridan Plaza in which a nude figure is hoisting a washing machine over her head.

The council acknowledged Tuesday that some new art projects will surely be controversial. Councilman Marc Berman welcomed the debate.

“Having grown up in a house that had a lot of eclectic art, I know how subjective art will be sometimes,” Berman said. “I’m sure we’ll hear a lot of complaints from the community about what they’re upset about. I look forward to those conversations because it’s art. That’s part of it.”

The new program will allow developers to choose between installing public art at the site of the project or contributing an “in lieu” fee for art, which would be collected and spent on larger art projects such as “gateways and high traffic spaces; community-based art projects; rotating exhibitions of temporary public art; and other creative place-making events,” according to a staff report.

All designs for public art would be reviewed by the Public Art Commission. Developers wishing to place art on the development site will also be required to meet for a consultation with a public art program manager before proceeding with the approval process.

Under the city’s most conservative estimate, the program would bring in about $275,000 in art projects over the next three years. But with development activity on the rise, the figure could be in the millions. According to the staff report, the new ordinance “may generate as much as $2 million for public art in the first three years of implementation.”

Of these funds, at least $200,000 could be used to pay for the expanded program, including project management.

In a report, staff argued that facilitating more art will help differentiate Palo Alto from other cities, “as similar developments move into each community.”

“Finding a balance between our economic development needs and the soul of our community is a creative challenge,” the report states. “Palo Alto wants to preserve its sense of its own history and destiny. By implementing percent for art into our development process now, Palo Alto can ensure that we can preserve our cultural and artistic heritage and create new ways to express ourselves as a community.”

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