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Questions remain after council stalls on art master plan

Los Altos’ Public Art Master Plan isn’t dead – but it isn’t active, either.

The city council’s Nov. 14 decision to accept but not implement the plan left members of the city’s Public Arts Commission discouraged and unsure of next steps.

The council voted to “receive” the report without approving the specifics of the plan, while directing arts commissioners to review it and determine “whether or not there are ideas (in the plan) that we could look at moving forward with,” as Councilwoman Jeannie Bruins put it.

Councilmembers seemed most supportive of plan elements that wouldn’t cost the city – or potential developers – additional money. A recent reassessment of city funding with members of the city’s Financial Commission left councilmembers wary of taking on additional costs – particularly in the wake of a commitment to rebuilding Hillview Community Center.

One master plan idea of forming a nonprofit organization to raise funding for public art seemed to interest the council most. But the idea of hiring a part-time staff member dedicated to public art did not.

Councilmembers appeared to misunderstand parts of the plan. Councilman Jean Mordo thought the ideas for public art outlined in Appendix B of the plan – ideas like a skate park at Lincoln Park – were proposed projects. Some saw the plan’s proposed art fees for new construction projects – 2 percent of project costs for city projects, 1 percent for private – as added, burdensome fees to project costs.

City Manager Chris Jordan tried to clarify.

“You integrate art into the project up to 2 percent of the cost,” he said, using the public project example. “You want the art integrated into the project.”

Amanda Golden, whose firm Designing Local put together the master plan, said the idea of developer fees for art is a regular practice in surrounding communities, one that encourages rather than discourages development.

“Developers are paying it in other cities. … It encourages them to develop in those cities because people are paying more because of the art,” she said.

‘Back to square one’

Overall, councilmembers saw public art as a “nicety,” as Councilwoman Lynette Lee Eng put it, that wasn’t a city priority.

“This is exactly opposite of what they led the commission to believe,” said Karen Zucker of the arts commission.

The council in 2016 granted the commission $50,000 to develop the master plan.

In a Town Crier letter to the editor (see page 9), Zucker called the experience “a huge disappointment. … This rejection of the master plan makes me feel that my six years on the commission was a total waste of time.”

“We did lots of education and outreach with all the commissions and city councilmembers, plus most special-interest groups in Los Altos,” Commissioner Maddy McBirney said. “Here we are back to square one. Sad, but true.”

Golden outlined the benefits of a public art plan at the Nov. 14 council meeting.

“Using public art can significantly increase an attachment to place,” she said.

Mayor Mary Prochnow, who was most supportive of the master plan, wasn’t ready to move on.

“I am hoping that we will be able to find a way to consider this again,” she said last week. “Our talented arts commission spent a great deal of time and talent hiring and working with Amanda over a long period of time.”

Jordan said he plans to discuss “next steps” with commissioners. He’s also hoping to arrange a study session with councilmembers, perhaps next month, to further discuss the plan.

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