Palo Alto Weekly

News - April 5, 2013

Palo Alto looks to welcome more public art

City to consider requiring developers to contribute to city's public-art collection

by Gennady Sheyner

Palo Alto has no shortage of eye-catching public art, from "Digital DNA," a giant egg covered with silicon chips that sits in Lytton Plaza, to California Avenue's quirky "Go Mama" sculpture, which features a running doll with a baby face for a torso.

But four City Council members believe the city is lagging when it comes to public art, and they want developers to help fix the situation.

The council is scheduled to discuss on Monday, April 8, a new proposal from Mayor Greg Scharff and councilmembers Pat Burt, Gail Price and Greg Schmid, which would require developers to contribute 1 percent of their construction costs for public art. The city adopted a Percent for Art policy for public projects in 2005. If the council adopts the quartet's proposal, the rule would also apply to all major developments (single-family homes, duplexes, triplexes, four-plexes and historical preservation sites would be exempt).

In the memo, the council members argue that Palo Alto "has fallen behind other cities in fostering public art and providing a dedicated funding source for maintenance of our public art collection." They compare Palo Alto to other cities such as Santa Monica, which requires developers of major commercial and residential projects to either commission public art or contribute an "in-lieu" fee of 2 percent that would support art. The memo notes that at least two dozen other California cities have similar laws.

The idea of requiring private developers to support public art was floated by Scharff during his "State of the City" address in February. During the speech, Scharff noted that as Palo Alto continues to develop, the availability of space for public art shrinks. It is important, he said, "that new development in Palo Alto positively impact the look and feel of our city."

"Great communities have great art," Scharff said at the speech. "Public art creates a sense of place and personality while fostering the kind of innovative thought that Palo Alto is known for."

If adopted, the new policy is expected to both expand the city's stock of public art and create new provisions for maintaining the current collection. The memo calls funding for the maintenance and conservation of art a "major issue," one that has led other cities — including Berkeley, Emeryville, San Jose, Oakland and Santa Cruz — to recently increase their percentage for municipal projects.

Some cities currently require a 1.5 percent or 2 percent contribution from new developments for routine maintenance, the memo states. It argues that Palo Alto should follow suit.

"It's time for Palo Alto to take the modest step of extending its Percent for Art Policy to private developments and to provide for a dedicated source for maintenance and administration of our public-art collection," the memo states.

A policy could require developers both to contribute toward art and commit to taking care of the artwork once it's commissioned, the council members recommend. The maintenance would be monitored by city staff and the artwork would be allowed to be removed without city approval.

The memo also encourages staff to develop a "robust plan" to set aside some fees in the current Percent for Art Policy for an ongoing and future maintenance program. The goal, according to the memo, is to create a "self-sustaining robust program" that does not rely on the General Fund.

According to a March Public Art Commission report, the city allotted $30,000 this fiscal year for maintenance of art. The city allocated $50,000 in the 2012 fiscal year to address a backlog of needed maintenance.

The memo also encourages the city to look beyond sculptures — however unusual — when it comes to art.

"The City should welcome and encourage a variety of art experiences including interactive art, sculptures, murals, mosaics, innovative spaces or facades that engage the public and signature architectural features," the memo states.

Staff Writer Gennady Sheyner can be emailed at gsheyner@paweekly.com.

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