San Francisco may oversee downtown developers' art selections 

Downtown developers may lose the final say over what art to showcase on their property, even though they are sometimes forced to spend millions of dollars on it.

A 25-year-old mandate requires that developers with large projects in the Financial District and along upper Market Street must spend at least 1 percent of their total construction budget on public art. But Luis Cancel, The City’s director of cultural affairs, believes there is insufficient aesthetic oversight of this spending.

Without providing specific examples of what he regards as subpar work, Cancel said there is support on the San Francisco Arts Commission for requiring developers to obtain that body’s approval before commissioning public art. Today, the commission will consider such a proposal from its staff.

“This will ensure that it is high quality and easily accessible to the public,” Cancel said, noting that developers sometimes choose to display their “public art” in inaccessible locations such as on their building’s roof, which he considers an abuse of the policy’s intended goal.

Yet developers who have transformed The City’s downtown with buildings and mandated art say the proposed extra layer of bureaucracy is cause for concern.

“Everybody’s got their own opinion about art,” said Andrew Junius whose law firm has represented dozens of buildings that have met the requirements, which apply to any new building or construction project that adds a floor to a building in excess of 25,000 square feet.

“I’d be concerned about people trying to tell you what kind of art can be put in your building,” he said.

While opinions vary about the quality of San Francisco’s many public art installations, the funding mandate definitely has helped bring life to The City’s often-repetitious high-rise office towers. One well-liked example is the three goofy stone heads and tall cascade of day-glo human silhouettes found on Mission Street near the corner of Second Street.

Junius noted that developers already have to show their plans to city planners. San Francisco Planning Director John Rahaim confirmed that his department already works with developers to ensure that such art projects are publicly accessible and not artistically inappropriate.

Cancel declined to discuss the apparent redundancy that would be created under his department’s proposal.

Supervisor Jane Kim, whose district includes most of the properties that sit in the affected neighborhoods, said she had not heard of the commission’s proposal, but is not opposed to it.

“I’m open to formalizing a process around public art, but just want to make sure that’s it’s serving a purpose,” Kim said.

Planning Commission Vice President Ron Miguel, who will eventually vote on the proposal if the Arts Commission approves it on Monday, said that since art on city-owned property is already subjected to a similar approval process, he sees an argument for it.

If both the Planning and Arts commissions vote in favor of the code change, then the Board of Supervisors will have the final say-so.

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Kamala Kelkar

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