A 4-foot-high, 30-foot-long bench made of oolite stone will soon decorate Balboa Plaza in Coral Gables. The massive sculpture, called “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” was commissioned by MG Developer, a company building three mid-rise luxury boutique townhouses near Balboa Plaza.
Jenny Ducret, MG Developer’s chief operating officer, recently boasted that the installation will add value to the neighborhood, but she admitted to another consideration: “To get permission to build, we had to contribute to the city’s Art in Public Places program,” Ducret said.
Since 2010, Coral Gables has required that new construction and renovation projects valued at $1 million or more either contribute public art equal to 1 percent of their construction costs or contribute a 1 percent payment to the city’s Art Acquisition Fund.
While smaller South Florida municipalities Palmetto Bay and Doral followed suit in 2015, the city of Miami’s move to create similar legislation for projects valued at $3 million or more has ruffled more than a few feathers. The proposed regulation was scheduled for a vote on Dec. 14.
The art investment requirement would be determined by the value of the project. For instance, if a development costs $3 million to $5 million, the builder would have to create art that is worth 0.5 percent of the construction cost or pay 0.25 percent of the construction cost to the public art fund. The percentages increase as the cost of a development increases.
Some prominent real estate players said that rather than encouraging developers to incorporate artwork into their projects, Miami’s proposal will just make it more difficult by creating unnecessary layers of bureaucratic red tape, including having to get the art approved by the City Commission in addition to obtaining independent appraisals and insurance for the installations.
“It is clearly easier to pay into a fund than run the risk of having a public art proposal rejected,” said David Polinsky, a principal with Fortis Design + Build. “Basically, if we have to live with the legislation as drafted, none of the dollars we currently spend on [putting art on] buildings would meet the criteria.”
Polinsky, who also sits on the board of directors for the Wynwood Business Improvement District, said he and other developers take particular issue with a requirement for an independent appraisal because they generally hire local artists whose work may not earn high valuations. And those lower-profile artists may not qualify under the new rules, which say that participating artists must be recognized by critics and peers as professionals, with frequent art exhibitions, awards and works that have been displayed in public institutions and museums.
“A lot of our artists are street artists who have opted out of the gallery scene,” Polinsky said, adding that murals they have produced for Wynwood would generate very low appraisals. “The art wouldn’t be worth more than the paint used to put it on walls.”
Also, Polinsky said, Wynwood would lose control over the aesthetics that have made it an international destination, because the City Commission and the Art in Public Places board would have the power to overrule the neighborhood’s Wynwood Design Review Committee, which was set up last year to sign off on local developments’ art installations. As a result, in October the Wynwood BID rescinded its initial support of the regulations, Polinsky said.
Efren Nuñez, the author of the pending legislation and Miami’s acting historic preservation officer, rejected the notion that the rules would discourage private developers from including public art in their plans. “We are proposing the smallest percentage contribution compared to other cities nationwide,” Nuñez said. “It is not a tax.”
He also insisted that the proposed rules for private developers would not hinder street artists, despite the aforementioned requirements. “On the contrary, our goal is to grow the local artist community for inclusion in the Art in Public Places program,” Nuñez said. “The legislation is no different than other cities like Coral Gables, Doral and across the nation.”
But unlike Miami’s proposal, Coral Gables does not make obtaining appraisals and separate insurance mandatory, and artists don’t have to prove their works have been exhibited in galleries, museums or public institutions.
The city does require that the developer’s artist submit a concept and budget, which is reviewed by the City of Coral Gables Cultural Development Board and the Board of Architects. The City Commission must then give the artwork final approval.
Since Coral Gables began its program seven years ago, the city has accrued approximately $1.5 million in fees, according to Art in Public Places program coordinator Catherine Cathers. She said her office does not break down how many developers have paid the fee in lieu of placing art; however, she said most prefer to install art in their projects. “We try to make the approval process as seamless as possible,” Cathers said.
Henry Torres, whose firm Astor Companies is building the 10-story luxury condo property Merrick Manor, said Coral Gables’ process for vetting public art contributions is pretty lenient.
Astor spent about $180,000 on a fountain in front of the entrance to his project, which represents 1 percent of Merrick Manor’s $18 million construction cost, he said. The fountain is made of keystone, a type of coral rock that is similar to other fountains the city places on public rights-of-way.
“They want something that fits the city’s Mediterranean style,” Torres said. “As long as you are within those parameters, they are happy to meet you halfway.”
While a relatively new concept in South Florida, making private developers pay for public art is common in major metropolitan U.S. cities including San Francisco, Los Angeles and New York.
Despite their relative prevalence nationwide, Albert Garcia, vice chairman of the Wynwood Business Improvement District and a major property owner in the neighborhood, said the regulations would have a negative impact on incorporating art in new developments in other emerging neighborhoods like Allapattah, Little Haiti and Little Havana.
“This legislation is a clear and present danger to their ongoing evolution,” Garcia said. “If this existed five to 10 years ago, Wynwood would not exist.”