Development art fee not living up to potential

A pedestrian wanders past the privately funded art installment at the 555 Mission St. plaza on Monday, Nov. 16, in San Francisco. (Mike Koozmin/S.F. Examiner)

San Francisco created a Public Art Trust Fund in 2012 with the expectation money from developers would flow into it — and the revenue would be doled out to benefit artists and art organizations.

But three years later, the fund is pretty much dormant.

A new city report shows developers are meeting San Francisco’s art fee requirement — 1 percent of a project’s cost — by paying for onsite art and not contributing to the fund. Developers have the option to do either.

For some, it’s a missed opportunity to have desperately needed revenue to counter the displacement of artists and preserve The City’s creative spirit. The revenues could bolster art organizations and assist artists being squeezed by rising real estate costs.

If the trend continues, the fund won’t see any of the $19.1 million expected in art fee revenues from 94 developments underway or in the approval process, based on the report by Budget Analyst Harvey Rose. Instead, developers will meet the mandate by paying for on-site art, such as placing sculptures in lobbies, according to the report

Supervisor Jane Kim, who requested the study, said the program is flawed and is exploring changes to it, though she has no immediate plans to propose legislation.

“I would not have crafted the 1 percent art fee as it is currently crafted,” Kim said.

Kim questioned whether a developer installing public art was really a public benefit, since it arguably benefits the development and the community has no say on how those fees are spent, unlike other development fees like transit and open space. She also said a citywide fee was the way to go.

In 2012, the Board of Supervisors approved legislation changing the art fee program, which dates back to 1985, to create the fund option and to expand it from the downtown area to SoMa.

The initial proposal would have created a citywide fee, but that was scaled back amid opposition from Mayor Ed Lee and developers. The proposal also lacked any incentive for the developers to contribute to the fund. Arguably, onsite artwork is an added benefit to the development, creating more of a disincentive.

Tom DeCaigny, director of cultural affairs for the Arts Commission, sees the trust as “an incredible vehicle” and noted the commission has “explored what an incentive would look like” to encourage developers to opt into the trust fund instead of installing onsite art.

One idea would be to offer a lower rate for a trust fund contribution. Ultimately, changes to the program are up to the Board of Supervisors and the Planning Commission.

DeCaigny added he believes there remains the possibility for developers in the planning pipeline to contribute the required fee into the fund, noting at least three developments where conversations are ongoing about doing that.

Any money going into the fund could help the Arts Commission address artist displacement.

The commission’s September artist survey showed nearly 600 artists were displaced or are threatened by displacement, indicating the urgency of the revenue.

DeCaigny said the fund is “absolutely part of the toolkit of solutions.” Since 1985, when the 1 Percent for Art program was first implemented, 53 works of art associated with 41 projects, about one development project per year on average, have resulted.

“Approximately half of the artwork is located in lobbies, terraces and other interior spaces on the premises of the buildings, but accessible to the public,” the report said.

The report noted the program, overseen by the Planning Department, lacks documentation and public disclosure of where the art is.

“The Department has limited documentation on the installation of public art in private downtown developments,” the report said. “Without public information and documentation the public does not know where all of the art is located and the department does not have a way to evaluate overall if the 1 Percent for Art program is achieving its goals.”

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