A program that would require private developers to contribute one percent of construction costs to public art won the unanimous support of a city committee Tuesday night, though members also expressed concerns about the program's complexity.
The percent for art in private development requirement would apply to any new commercial development that is more than 10,000 square feet and costs $200,000 or more. Developers can commission a piece of on-site art or choose to pay an in-lieu fee, which is pooled in a public art fund meant to support larger art projects.
"I love the whole idea," said Councilmember Liz Kniss during Tuesday's Policy and Services Committee meeting. But, she said, "I don't want to in any way not acknowledge the complexity of moving into this particular area."
Other council members echoed this sentiment about the program, which won a 4-0 vote, raising questions in particular about the program's in-lieu option.
Councilmember Gail Price spoke to the need for having larger, more impactful public art in Palo Alto, which ideally the in-lieu avenue would support.
"I think one of the things that many cities suffer from, especially smaller cities, is sometimes the artwork tends to suffer from punyism," she said. "And because of the diminutive nature of some of these art pieces, they really aren't making the kinds of statements that may be appropriate."
But having a pool of in-lieu funds also means saddling the city with the difficult choice of selecting larger, more visible artwork that will almost certainly not please all Palo Altans.
Kniss cited a piece of Palo Alto public art history to make this point: "Foreign Friends," a wooden sculpture installed at the corner of Embarcadero Road and Waverley Street in 1989. The 11-foot piece -- a gift from Palo Alto's Swedish sister city, Linkoping --depicted a couple sitting together on a bench, a blue street lamp behind them and a small dog at their feet. Some deemed the statue endearingly picturesque; others, a total eyesore. The couple was vandalized in various ways -- twice beheaded -- and eventually relocated.
"My point being … art and its acceptance and so forth is always going to be judged," Kniss said. "It's in the eye of the beholder."
This also applies to private developers commissioning on-site art, which they can choose to do on their own or with city assistance. Councilmember Karen Holman said with developers desiring a broad definition of art, she's more supportive of the in-lieu option.
"It's a delicate dance," she said of defining what is and isn't art. "I don't want to preclude the other opportunity (privately commissioned artworks), but I think it's challenging. I think it's very challenging."
The Committee also approved an amendment to the staff report, eliminating an incentive option that would lower developers' contributions from one to 0.95 percent if they chose the in-lieu route. A 0.05 percent break was deemed too small an incentive by the Committee.
Though council members also discussed the possibility of asking developers to chip in more or less than one percent -- many other cities, such as Santa Monica and Sacramento, require a two percent contribution -- the Committee recommended to keep the status quo at one percent.
Price also recommended that staff look at various transit authorities' art programs, such as the Metropolitan Transportation Authority in New York City or the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority. Though different animals, examining their processes could prove helpful moving forward, she said.
The City Council will consider the committee's recommendations this fall or winter, with the hope of staff implementing and embarking on a community engagement process in 2014.