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SF muses over changes to required art contributions from developers

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The 92-foot-tall “Venus” Statue is seen at Trinity Plaza near 8th and Market streets on Wednesday. (Jessica Christian/S.F. Examiner)
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With development booming and millions of dollars in play, San Francisco continues to debate how developers should contribute to the arts.

Since the 1980s, developers in the downtown area have been required to spend 1 percent of their project cost in art onsite.

Five years ago, San Francisco created a Public Art Trust Fund to give developers another option to meet the mandate by contributing the required art spending to the fund. The City could then disperse the money with oversight by the Arts Commission.

Instead of sculptures in places like a development’s lobby, local arts organizations and artists could receive that funding. But few developers have shown interest in the fund.

To change that, the Arts Commission drafted proposed legislation to provide developers with an incentive — a 20 percent reduction in the 1 percent art fee if they opt to put the money into the fund.

That discount, however, was blasted by Arts Commissioner Dorka Keehn earlier this month, and the proposal was sent back to the drawing board.

“Twenty percent is way too much of a giveaway to these developers,” Keehn said.

Jill Manton, the Arts Commission’s director of Public Art Trust and Special Initiatives, said the goal is to incentivize the trust. “That was our primary objective.”

Manton said it’s hard to sell developers on the trust since they would rather have the artwork on site because it adds prestige to their development and increases the value of the property.

“It would have to be a minimum of 20 percent before they even consider it,” Manton said.

Keehn also took issue with using the public art requirement to fund art organizations and to allow the developer to select a specific arts organization. “This funding that was specifically designated for public art is now being watered down,” Keehn said.

But Manton argued that while she was “all for very beautiful objects,” public art can take on different forms. “We envision that we could help to create more of a cultural ecology in the vicinity of the building, that it would be a cultural destination,” Manton said.

Tom DeCaigny, director of cultural affairs for the Arts Commission, said the use of art fee funds is an ongoing debate at City Hall. “Frankly, I don’t think there is a consensus either at the Board of Supervisors or the Planning Commission.”

Some want to see the resources going toward nonprofits, while others want to preserve the initial intent of the 1980s law for onsite art.

In 2015, Supervisor Jane Kim requested the budget analyst examine the development art fee, expressing concerns about whether onsite art is truly a public benefit akin to other development impact fees.

Since 1985, 53 works of art associated with 41 developments were installed, the report found, with half in lobbies, terraces and other interior spaces.

The 2015 report said that $19.1 million in art fee revenues from 94 developments underway was expected. The City had also initially proposed when creating the trust fund to extend the fee citywide, but after being opposed by developers and Mayor Ed Lee, it was extended beyond the downtown area to include South of Market.

Meanwhile, some big art fee amounts are being sunk into onsite art.

Last year, the Trinity Plaza development at Eight and Market streets made headlines by using its required $5 million art fee for courtyard artwork with a 92-foot-tall “Venus” statue as the centerpiece.

The required art fee for the 1,000-foot-tall Salesforce Tower, more than $3 million, will go toward onsite art in creating an illuminated crown to broadcast digital images.

“We have contemplated changes for a while, however we needed some time to see how developers responded to the trust legislation,” Arts Commission spokesperson Rebekah Krell said in an email to the San Francisco Examiner.

Another change being discussed is to ensure The City receives the fee based on the actual project cost — rather than the estimated cost — as has been the case. An amendment would require The City to calculate the art fee when the development was certified for occupancy.

Since the art trust was established, it has received $3.5 million.

Emerald Fund was the first developer to use the fund in 2015, opting to put $1.5 million of its required art fee into the trust to fund artwork on the Polk Street side facade of the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium, which faces that developer’s project across the street.

Developer Group I will put $525,000 of art fees into the trust as part of its 910-950 Market Street development, of which $200,000 would go to the Wildflower Institute pay Tenderloin artists an honorarium to publicly display artwork and $150,000 to Magic Theater for productions in the area.

When arts organizations do receive art fee funds, even if just a portion of the total amount required, it can make a noticeable difference.

Oceanwide Holdings intends to contribute $1 million — a portion of its art fee requirement for its massive development of a hotel, office space and condos at Mission and First streets — through the trust to the Museum of African Diaspora at Mission and Third streets.

“We happen to be very lucky here in San Francisco that there is this fee and that there is the option for developers to support the arts,” said Linda Harrison, executive
director of the Museum of African Diaspora.

Harrison said the funding will “expand and enhance our exhibitions and our education programming,” including for high school students, over the course of one year.

Ultimately, any changes to the art fee would need approval by the Planning Commission and the Board of Supervisors.

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