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April 07, 2004

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Publication Date: Wednesday, April 07, 2004

Menlo council votes to repaint public art law Menlo council votes to repaint public art law (April 07, 2004)

By Rebecca Wallace
Almanac Staff Writer

The design for the mural at the Menlo Chevron service station was ready to go, with images of colorful cars at a gas pump.

The kids from the Boys and Girls Club practically had the paintbrushes in their hands. All this, despite the fact that station owner John Conway didn't want the art.

Now the mural probably won't ever become reality. And, some art-lovers say, neither will many other works of public art that could have been.

In a move that made business folks beam and art-lovers cringe, the Menlo Park City Council on March 30 took a swipe at the city's public art law, directing city staff to draw up a new version. This one would allow all applicants with building projects facing the public art mandate to pay an in-lieu fee instead of installing art on their property.

Currently, applicants qualify for the fee only if the Arts Commission determines that there's no appropriate place on their site for art.

Even though the Menlo Chevron mural was set to be painted in June, the action didn't come too late for Mr. Conway, who fervently opposes the law as an unfair burden to businesses. The council agreed that the amendments would be retroactive, applying to applicants whose projects are already going through the public art process.

After the meeting, Mr. Conway said he would scrap the mural and pay the in-lieu fee if the council ultimately approves the amendments.

"I really don't want that painting on the building. I still feel that art is inappropriate there," he said. His Chevron station, located on El Camino Real at Oak Grove Avenue, recently re-opened after a $1 million remodel and upgrade.

The law requires developers of commercial, industrial and municipal projects costing at least $250,000 to pay 1 percent of construction costs to put in art. The in-lieu fee, however, would go into a citywide fund that city officials would use for art elsewhere, probably on municipal land.

The Arts Commission had recommended that if the fee were to be open to everyone, it should be boosted to 1.5 percent for costs that the city would then cover: choosing an artist, installing the art, maintaining it. Some members of the council, though, wanted to keep the fee at 1 percent and asked the commission to look into what the city's costs would be.

Councilwoman Mickie Winkler, who made the motion for the amendments, had said the higher fee would deter businesses from coming to Menlo Park.

At the meeting, Mayor Lee Duboc asked City Attorney Bill McClure if it is legal to make the changes retroactive. "Business people want relief," she said, supporting the motion. Mr. McClure said the move would be legal.

Mr. Conway's views have been aligned with those of the councilwomen before. He's president of the political group Menlo Park Matters, which has backed Ms. Winkler and Ms. Duboc and champions such issues as streamlining the permitting process for businesses.

Mr. Conway also had two vocal defenders at the meeting: his sisters, who waved hand-lettered signs that said "No Art For Menlo Chevron" and "Keep Chevron Red, White, and Blue."

"Don't you have more important things to do?" sister Candy Galea shouted at the council. "Let this poor man pay you your money -- that's what this is all about -- so we can all go home!"

Councilmen Chuck Kinney and Nicholas Jellins also voted for the amendments. Paul Collacchi abstained, saying that he had always opposed the law as an inappropriate way to mitigate the effects of construction.

The council also agreed to review the law again in 18 months.

Less public art?

The decision was a disappointment to Arts Commission Chair Nancy Chillag, who has championed a public art law from the very beginning and thought it was too early to review the ordinance, which took effect in September 2002.

Because of the economic slowdown, only a few projects have fallen under the law. A mural has been installed at the new Mike's Cafe on Middlefield Road, and a decorative bench is now at the 7-Eleven on Alma Street.

A mural was approved in March for the expanding Longs Pharmacy in Sharon Heights, and four other applications are in process, including the planned Safeway renovation on El Camino Real.

Ms. Chillag also raised another concern: if businesses pay into the in-lieu fund rather than putting art on their sites, art could end up concentrated only in city sites such as parks, rather than providing a widespread benefit. It could be difficult for the city to work with owners of private property to put art there, she added.

"This could result in less art," she said.

In the meeting, though, Mr. Jellins said, "I believe that we as a city can do a pretty good job of putting it (art) in various places."

Resident Erin Glanville voiced concern after the meeting that a 1 percent in-lieu fee could mean the city wouldn't be able to recoup its art-related costs.

"I came away unsure about how committed the entire council was to art," she said.

Ms. Chillag added that she felt bad for the children who had planned to paint the Menlo Chevron mural: "What a slap in the face to the Boys and Girls Club."

Mr. Conway said he would probably give a donation to the club.

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