- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 5, 2003

Two years ago, the city of Rockville passed a voluntary ordinance encouraging developers to include public-art displays in their construction plans.

The goal was to use art to make the city a more livable place, and draw residents and business, a noble idea that proved to be toothless, said John Mouser, head of the city’s Cultural Arts Commission.

“We did not have a single developer that stepped forward,” said Mr. Mouser, who leads the 11-member volunteer panel that drafted the ordinance, “so we decided to make it a mandatory thing.”

The Rockville City Council is considering a tougher ordinance proposed by the commission, which would require developers to pay roughly 1 percent of their construction budget for public art projects at the building site. The council is expected to discuss the issue this month.

Many cities and states have adopted “Percent for Art” programs in an effort to promote public art. Most, like New York and Chicago, limit the requirement to public buildings.

But Rockville’s proposal goes a step further, covering the development of private homes, apartments, and commercial and industrial buildings greater than a certain value. Exemptions would be given to religious centers, low-income housing and housing for the elderly.

The ordinance has prompted strong opposition from developers who consider the proposed rule too broad. Some arts organizations are also skeptical, fearing that it will draw corporate donations from their groups. It has also forced all sides to try to answer the question: What is art?

Mr. Mouser said the intent is to have developers commission artists to build sculptures, murals and other works on their sites that are open to the public. However, some business leaders say that concept ignores the art of architecture, arguing that it is as visually appealing as a free-standing sculpture.

“Art is good; we like art,” said Joy Young, executive director of the Rockville Chamber of Commerce, “but what we don’t want is 50 different ideas of what art is in front of businesses. Does it mean a pink flamingo in front of a storage space?”

Most “percent for art” programs are based on one implemented in 1959 in Philadelphia, which has made more than 1,500 works of art available to the public.

Miss Young says the ordinance was developed without any comment from the developers, most of whom weren’t aware of the voluntary regulation passed two years ago.

The proposal also doesn’t give builders incentives to provide art, she said, unlike a Montgomery County program that allows flexible zoning for builders who agree to provide open space or contribute to arts programs.

Montgomery County’s approach benefits all arts organizations, said Rex Bickmore of the Musical Theater Center, a Rockville group that offers performing-arts training.

If passed, the regulation would be likely to have an immediate effect. Rockville plans to redevelop 15 acres of downtown property with a combination of retail and residential space.

With the project set to begin in 2004, about 70 percent of its $317 million cost would come from private sources. That amount could be subject to the new public-art regulation, if it is passed.

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