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Public Art in Santa Monica Benefits from Private Development

Santa Monica Real Estate Company, Roque and Mark
By Melonie Magruder
Lookout Staff

February 8, 2013 -- If you think the term “real estate development” is antithetical to cultural arts promotion, think again.

Santa Monica's no stranger to leveraging its prime real estate to get developers to pay for community benefits, from affordable housing to public spaces and even public art.

In 2007, Santa Monica instituted an ordinance requiring developers eying the potential profits of new development within the city to pony up in support of public art in order to receive permitting.

For some, the ordinance was a long-time coming.

“I waited 22 years for this,” said Bruria Finkel, co-founder of the Arts Commission.

Finkel believes that the ordinance is a perfect marriage of commerce and community.

“At the time, the city attorney was concerned that developers would simply balk at doing anything here with such a law, so we met with people working on projects then,” she said.

“People like Robert Maguire and Michael McCarty were all supportive. They were alert to the importance of the arts in our city,” she said.

The ordinance calls for developers to allot two percent of their building permit valuation to onsite arts and/or cultural uses, or to make a contribution of one percent of the project costs to a Cultural Arts Trust Fund.

The former proposal could mean installing art onsite or, for example, providing low-cost studio/rehearsal space for artists to use, as part of the general design plan.

The latter option has generated more than $261,000 for the Fund, however most of the 35 development agreements in the pipeline have yet to be finalized.

The City Council unanimously adopted the measure, declaring that it was essential to balance the development and revitalization of private property with the development of cultural and artistic resources.

“We feel that this ordinance reflects our community’s involvement with and appreciation of the arts,” the City’s Cultural Affairs Director Jessica Cusick said. “It’s a quality of life issue.”

Indeed, according to the City’s website, nearly 50 percent of Santa Monica’s adult population makes all or part of its living in arts-related fields. There are 1,634 arts-related businesses in the city, employing 11,464 people. It’s no wonder that nearly 90 percent of our residents believe the city’s cultural arts scene makes Santa Monica a better place to raise children.

Development-funded public arts projects are not unheard of.

The city of Tampa, Florida encourages private developers who apply for commercial permits to commit one percent of construction costs up to $200,000 to the provision of fine art. San Francisco has an ordinance mandating downtown developers of projects over 25,000 square feet spend at least one percent of construction costs on public art that can be viewed for free by anyone.

According to Cusick, developers are not adverse to the two percent fee mandated for onsite projects because it enhances the value of the property.

“When the ordinance was first proposed, we didn’t get a lot of commentary from developers at all,” she said. “By default, I think they support the concept, because otherwise they would have been fighting it.”

The ordinance demands can be applied creatively. New Roads School has had construction of a new theater approved, which will be made available for community performance groups at no or low cost for a number of years.

Even embattled developer Marc Luzzatto, whose East Village Project resides in limbo at the moment, believes that in contributing to the arts statement of a city, you contribute to its general well-being.

“We renovated an old building that housed NPR West in Culver City,” Luzzatto said. “As a public art project, we took old dust collectors from the old business, refurbished them and mounted them on pylons around the property. It paid homage to the history of the place but made great public art as well.”

Should the path for the East Village’s development be smoothed, Luzzatto said he could envision incorporating parts of the old trailer park, such as railings or gates, into the ultimate design, acknowledging the history of what was once there in an artistic statement.

Artists relish the idea of public commissions as an opportunity to make a big, public statement and bidding for the commissions is fierce. Mike Ross is a sculptor whose work has been commissioned around the country, creating bold, colorful projects to adorn public spaces from light rail stations to hotel atriums.

Ross is working on an untitled piece that will be mounted on the newly renovated city parking structure #6, and spoke of the challenges inherent in any public art project.

“I think one of the big challenges with public art is to fully take account of the work's context without being controlled by it,” Ross said.

“Public art can be very architectural in that way. The design for the Santa Monica piece was heavily influenced by the building itself.

“I was inspired by the facade facing 2nd Street, which features a spectacular red stairwell weaving in and out of the aluminum surface,” he continued.

“To me it felt like a very grand gesture. For the east facade, I tried to up the spectacle with another gesture, a bit more out of control. I would like to introduce some chaos into the ordered structure of the building's grid.”

Ross’ developer-funded, public art piece will be unveiled later this year.

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