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What's Brewing

Public art worth the cost

By SUSAN THURSTON
Published October 22, 2004

It's hard to miss the big, white Slinky along the median of Bayshore Boulevard. Or the exploding chicken sculpture at the foot of the beer can building on Ashley Drive.

They are among dozens of public art pieces in the city of Tampa's collection.

The public art program took shape about 20 years ago as a way to make Tampa look a little more exciting and, well, artsy. The logic: More people, particularly up-and-coming young professionals, will want to invest locally if the area has some creative zing.

To build the collection, the city requires developers in the central business district to spend 0.75 percent of their project's cost on public art, up to $200,000. They can incorporate art into their building or write a check to the city for public art.

THE LATEST construction craze should mean good things for the city's program led by Robin Nigh. Sort of.

Projects in the Channel District, including the loads of condos planned near Channelside Drive, are outside the central business district boundaries, and, therefore, don't have to set aside money for public art.

That may be about to change.

The mayor-appointed public art committee is looking at tweaking the rules to capitalize on the building boom and fulfill Mayor Pam Iorio's vision for making Tampa a real "City of the Arts."

On the table: raising the developer contribution to 1 percent, expanding the boundaries and eliminating the $200,000 cap.

THE TIMING couldn't be better, says committee chairman Julio Esquivel, a downtown lawyer. "People are starting to recognize how important arts are to the community."

How important remains to be seen.

Increasing the developer contribution most certainly will face scrutiny. If approved by the mayor and City Council, possibly in March, the changes could mean big money for developers.

Without a cap, for example, Michael McGuinness, a partner in the $110-million Towers of Channelside, would have to spend $1.1-million on public art instead of $200,000. His reaction: Any proposed increase "needs careful review and study."

My translation: Get ready for a fight.

Margot Eure, a former public art committee chairwoman who worked for developers on public art, agrees that overhauling the rules could be a tough sell. As a potential compromise, she favors expanding the boundaries but leaving the $200,000 cap and 0.75 percent contribution.

"Big cities have 1 and 2 percent," she said. "We're a little city - but we're growing."

The city must be careful not to create impediments to growth, said Truett Gardner, a land use lawyer representing developers. The downtown area hasn't felt the residential boom yet.

"You definitely don't want to stunt development," said Gardner, whose family is developing the Meridian in Channel District. He added that "$200,000 is nothing to sneeze at."

Still, most developers don't flinch at the current provision, he said. They recognize the importance of public art and want to leave a positive mark on the community.

The benefits ring loudly. Public art creates a sense of identity, breaks up the blah and builds community spirit. Thanks to public art, we can say, "Let's meet at the hanging fish on Bayshore." "Let's meet under the Lightning bolts at the St. Pete Times Forum." "Let's meet at the chicken and get lunch."

Public art just makes people feel good, said Wilson Stair, the city's urban design manager. "They may not be able to put their finger on it . . . but I think art is something of a classic need.'

The truth is, developers can probably afford it. A good residential project often nets 20 percent in profit, Gardner said.

I say it's worth it.

THE LAST DROP: The second anniversary party for the streetcar drew thousands of riders. About 7,000 to be exact, significantly more than an average Saturday, which sees about 2,000 riders. Maybe the excitement over nickel fares should prompt HARTline to think about reducing the $1.50 regular fares.

- Susan Thurston can be reached at 226-3394 or thurston@sptimes.com

[Last modified October 21, 2004, 13:22:09]

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