Save our Petaluma RiverWalk

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Terminate the Terrible Tubs!

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The above image is an artist's concept sketch of his proposal to transform the Petaluma Water Street promenade into his vision of public art titled, "Fine Balance." It consists of five claw-foot bathtubs mounted atop steel poles seventeen feet high (17'). The artist is not from Petaluma and is being paid $150,000 to assemble this structure in the heart of downtown Petaluma. The Petaluma Public Arts Council has already approved this contract and paid the artist $20,000 to date (as of August 2018). Petaluma City Council has the authority to negate the contract before the final phase but so far has chosen not to interfere despite significant criticism from Petaluma residents. The structure is permanent and California law requires the permission of the artist to remove public art once it's installed.

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A grassroots coalition of resistance has formed to STOP THIS INSANITY and preserve the beauty and river-friendly space on Water Street. There are many important concerns with this installation aside from aesthetic issues: safety, ADA non-compliance and city liability concerns being foremost. The obtuse angles of the poles will be a major obstacle for pedestrians and those in wheelchairs and walkers. Unless the entire horizontal footprint of each pole up to seven feet high is roped off there is a very real danger of people hitting their heads on angled poles if not carefully watching where they walk. Playful children are even more likely to get hurt. There is no safe and sane way to erect 20 angled poles into a pedestrian walkway without dangerously affecting the walkway.

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The tubs themselves will be subjected to winds and weather and likely become an easy target for vandals and graffiti. Whether original cast-iron (very heavy) or fiberglass replicas they will gather debris and require cleaning, even if the tops are covered. Drunken revelers climbing the poles is a serious liability concern for the city. Additionally, the City of Petaluma is responsible for ongoing maintenance and the cost of removal in the future (assuming the artist agrees to removal and will accept a removal payment; such payments have historically been in the ballpark of $75,000).

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While there are many convincing reasons to disallow this installation on the Petaluma RiverWalk perhaps the strongest argument is within the city's own comprehensive Central Petaluma Specific Plan (CPSP). Adopted by the Petaluma City Council in June 2003, the plan is very clear in its vision for future development downtown and particularly around the river and the turning basin. The overall theme repeatedly stated within the document is a strong desire to retain and enhance open space resources for river views, pedestrian and bicycle traffic, and public festivals and events near the river. The extracts below clearly illustrate this stance. Obviously, a large installation such as the one proposed by this artist will directly impede and go against all the positive pedestrian/river aspects required as per the Central Petaluma Specific Plan.

A perfect example is the impact on the annual Petaluma Craft Beer Festival. As reported by the Press Democrat on 8/25/18, "The bathtubs could displace one-third of the 36 booths at the event. That, in turn, could cut into the event's fund-raising for the Petaluma Valley Rotary Club." One of the event volunteers also said it will likely force them to find a different location next year, a clear violation to the spirit and intent of the CPSP.

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Extracts from the Central Petaluma Specific Plan (CPSP):

"The Turning Basin should continue to serve as the site for special events, and each of the individual open spaces on both sides of the river designed to serve complementary roles in accommodating special or seasonal events within the community."

"The Turning Basin represents the primary focal space within Central Petaluma, marking the terminus of the navigable extent of the river and punctuating the linearity of the corridor with a watery plaza. While this area has become the center of special events and city celebrations, these activities are poorly accommodated in the narrow spaces surrounding the edges of the Turning Basin. This plan calls for an expansion of the open spaces surrounding the basin by creating a continuous walkway and more coherent and defined public spaces."

"Within the linear setting of the river, the Turning Basin creates focal points and presents perhaps the most obvious opportunities to strengthen land and water open spaces."

"In the future, with intensification and infill of Central Petaluma, there is the opportunity to take greater advantage of the river as an open space element within the city and to transform it from a functional corridor into an urban amenity."

"Shoreline open space is also extremely effective, because its apparent size can be magnified by the adjacent water space."

"Reconfiguration of a portion of Water Street to provide for greater pedestrian movement should be undertaken, as well as top-of-bank improvements elsewhere along the water's edge."

"This open space should include pathways, trees and other landscaping, and should make this reach of the river more amenable to pedestrians and bicyclists."

"Open spaces should be connected by a continuous path, to provide a greater focus on the Turning Basin and reinforce the unique geometry of this part of the river."

"The objective is to create unique sense of place and a rich pedestrian experience as they move through the public space between the buildings and river edge."

"Projects should strive to maintain view corridors to the river edge and natural habitat wherever possible."

"Goal 5: Utilize public space to open up views and vistas from inland areas to the river and the mountains."

"Goal 6: Reinforce the watery open space within the Turning Basin."

"Policy 3.3: Establish a pedestrian oriented promenade around the Turning Basin."

Clearly, the CPSP does not provide for such an intrusive installation as large bathtubs on poles!

5 tubs, 20 poles (4 per tub); 17' high spanning approx. 150' of river walk; initial cost: $150,000

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Additional Thoughts and Concerns

Our Petaluma RiverWalk is a special place; an inviting, open and inspiring municipal waterfront unique to Petaluma. It is the heart of our downtown. Installation of such a large structure, regardless of artistic merit, will permanently redefine that space into one man's vision. This should not happen, this space is not in need of being redefined. It should be preserved in its openness and enhanced to embrace the river's natural beauty and inspiration, as per the Central Petaluma Specific Plan.

We believe this proposal, comprised solely of bathtubs on steel poles, does not represent Petaluma well. The artist's reasoning for tubs is thinly tied to stories of iron bathtubs shipped up the Petaluma River from San Francisco in the past. There is no direct connection between bathtubs and Petaluma and we feel strongly that this structure does not beautify or enhance the Petaluma RiverWalk. Surely, for $150,000 we should expect more inspiring and beautiful public art for our community that reflects Petaluma's rich heritage. Bathtubs on poles? Really?

The artist, Brian Goggin, from San Francisco, while well recognized and revered in national art circles, is not local to the community. Petaluma boasts many excellent artists and we feel such an important space as the Petaluma RiverWalk should have local, original art. We've discovered that this bathtub theme was recycled from previous proposals other cities have turned down in the past. This seems disingenuous given that this piece is supposed to be site-specific and entirely designed by inspiration from Petaluma and the surrounding area.

Petaluma is congested enough. Downtown streets are full of cars and commercial traffic most of the time. The Petaluma RiverWalk is a pedestrian respite from the hustle and bustle of our city streets. We do not need more congestion in our most special sanctuary space near the river.

Story poles are supposed to be erected by the artist and PPAC to allow the public to experience and visualize how the structure will affect the Petaluma RiverWalk space. PPAC has stated that the story poles will only be in place for 24 hours. This is entirely unacceptable since most of the citizens of Petaluma will not have an opportunity to witness the mock-up.

There is a large groundswell of opposition to this project. An online poll hosted by the Argus Courier provided results approximately 80% against the tubs. FaceBook posts and the Next Door online forum shows an informal estimate closer to 90% opposition. Even at PPAC meetings the ratio of public supporters to those opposed has been approximately 1 to 10. It is also common knowledge that some PPAC members are acquaintances of the artist, if not personal friends.

While most objectors feel the aesthetic merits of this piece are questionable, even to the extent of calling it ugly and tasteless, the primary objection is not to the art itself, rather the location. The Petaluma RiverWalk is sacred ground. To impose such a dramatic change, in clear defiance of the Central Petaluma Specific Plan's intentions to preserve and enhance open space near the Petaluma River, is contrary to uniting the community behind public art. Instead, this project divides the community and risks a decrease in interest and participation of future public art projects in Petaluma.
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Petaluma City Council has the final word on whether or not this project moves forward. During a council meeting this past summer Mayor Glass asked for a straw poll from council members as to their position on allowing the project to proceed. Options were to simply cancel the project; move the project to another location; or, to allow the process to continue despite strong public opposition. Here are the results of that poll:

  • MOVE or CANCEL    --    Chris Albertson
  • Allow to proceed    --    Teresa Barrett
  • Allow to proceed    --    Mayor David Glass
  • MOVE or CANCEL    --    Vice Mayor Mike Healy
  • Allow to proceed    --    Gabe Kearney
  • Allow to proceed    --    Dave King
  • Allow to proceed    --    Kathy Miller

We sent current candidates the following email or FaceBook post (08/21/18):
"Dear XXXX: You may be aware of an ongoing controversy about the proposed art installation on Water Street. There is a large thread about this on The folks on Nextdoor have asked about the positions of the candidates on this issue. Can you please provide responses to the three questions below? You can provide simple yes/no responses, or provide more detailed explanations. We will post your responses on the Nextdoor thread. We have asked all of the candidates to respond to these questions."
1) Do you support moving forward with the installation of a public art piece for the Water Street promenade comprised of five iron clawfoot bathtubs on 17 foot stilts (20 stilts in all)?
2) Do you feel the Petaluma Public Art Committee (PPAC) and the associated public art process has adequately considered the concerns and opinions of the public in moving forward with this installation?
3) Do you support amending the public art ordinance to make the PPAC an "advisory" committee as opposed to an autonomous committee as it is today?"

Scott Alonso:
Yes I am in support of the project moving forward. The City's Art Committee and public have discussed the issue of this art project for many years. The City Council has also weighed in on the topic.
2) I believe the best outcome from this entire process is that this discussion underscored how we need to improve the engagement with the community on this issue and other city issues. While the Art Committee did have public meetings and votes for this art project, the lack of attendance at these meetings is of concern. We need to broaden our outreach to the entire city for these types of issues. And with this outreach we also need to listen. While we won't agree on every point or issue, the process matters. If folks don't trust the process, then we can't move forward to find consensus and get things done. One of the main reasons I am running is to increase transparency and engagement with local government. I am passionate about We also need to ensure our meetings are held at various times and locations, and publicized widely. Right now the City does not use social media well. As a member of the Planning Commission I fought for months to get our agendas posted on the City's social media accounts. Fortunately, now the City is publicizing committee agendas in a more public way.
3) Do you support amending the public art ordinance to make the PPAC an "advisory" committee as opposed to an autonomous committee as it is today? I would support an overall look at our entire committee/commission structure in Petaluma. The Art Committee should have more members on it and more support from City staff. In terms of an advisory role versus a self-governing role I think we need to look at what issues the Art Committee could tackle themselves versus what would go to the Council. We certainly do not want to slow down projects or the process for bureaucracy's sake. I think it is healthy to have a balance for a Committee/Commission to have in terms of decision-making responsibilities-hence why the Council appointed the Committee members and created thecommittee in the first place. I am open to discussing this issue and hearing from folks, you can email me at:

Teresa Barrett:
 We are in the process of analyzing the feasibility of locating the proposed artwork at the proposed location. There are several important issues that will need to be addressed: ADA compliance and public safety are two that come to mind immediately. The next stage of this process regarding this proposal will be the installation of story poles which will be important to get a better sense of the space and the potential impacts. With each stage of the process we may gain additional experiences which could prove valuable both in evaluating this project and adapting the current process in the future.
2) As the ordinance is written the art committee has the decision making authority and responsibility concerning the selection of the artist and the art. As an elected official, I have consistently advocated for public involvement in just about every aspect of governance in our city and this area is no exception. I believe the public art committee did make considerable efforts over a number of years to inform and involve public participation in the process. However, it is clear that many in the public feel they only found out about the process once the decision was made, so work must be done to change that going forward. Various models used in other jurisdictions have been unearthed and suggested as preferred alternative processes and I think that discussion should take place perhaps first at the council (or a subcommittee) level and then, if needed through the city attorney’s office with regulation alterations that would then need to be voted on by the council. I think it is important to remind ourselves that the volunteers who comprise the committee followed a process that was adopted by the city council many years ago.
3) This question is asking if I support amending the public art ordinance in a very singular way. To simply answer no may imply I do not support amending the public art ordinance. As one can read from my response to Question #2 above, that is not the case. Nothing productive doesn’t include change. As process develops we learn what works and what doesn’t and act accordingly, like language process evolves with time. Keeping the PPAC as far from politically-charged decision making will continue to be a goal of mine, which also should not be read to mean the PPAC should not have more public interaction and input.

Robert Conklin: (immediate response)
1) No
2) No
3) Yes

Mike Harris:
 Art is a very important component for the vibrancy of a community. Art is subjective, but the public art piece on the Water Street promenade is to me the wrong piece for that location. I would rather not move forward with this piece on the Water Street promenade and if I was on the Council at the time of this vote, I would have not voted in favor of it. In addition, it gives me pause that the annual Chamber event in conjunction with the Rotary (which has their annual festival on Water Street) may have difficulties on a go-forward basis with having their events there because of the space these art pieces could be taking up.
2) I understand and appreciate that they had a lot of outreach prior to their decision. However, just like I experienced while I served on the Petaluma City Council for 12 years (Jan 2003-Jan 2015), the public sometimes does not get involved in the process until later on in a project's decision making process. So you must always be willing to accept the public's input no matter at what point it comes along during this process. With the tremendous outcry this project brought, I felt it would have been best to put this project on hold to adequately accept all of the public's input.
3) I do feel that the PPAC should be a recommending body. While the committee has a tremendous amount of background on this subject matter, at the end of the day, the buck should stop with the Petaluma City Council and I would favor an amendment to the ordinance to reflect that. Respectfully submitted, Mike Harris

Dennis Pocekay:
 If I am charged with voting, I would have to say NO; though I consider myself a strong supporter of public art, I do not “GET” the proposed piece. And although I accept that good art is often controversial, I do not see that this piece celebrates Petaluma history, environmental assets, or diversity (see mission statement of PPAC).
2) It is now hard to piece together how well the PPAC considered public opinion as it moved forward. What has happened is surely another example of “a picture is worth a thousand words."
3) NOT NECESSARILY; I think that we have many residents who know more about art than our councilmen, and that we should take advantage of their knowledge. I would need to hear much more than I have so far heard of the discussion detail around the time the ordinance was passed.

Michael Regan:
I’m very disappointed that the art committee didn’t choose a local artist who could have created a project that truly represented Petaluma. In another area of town this project may be OK, but I’m not in favor of the planned water street location.
2) No
3) I’m in favor of having that public discussion.

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 5 tubs, 20 poles (4 per tub); 17' high spanning approx. 150' of river walk; initial cost: $150,000

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* All monies raised will be used for advertising and opposition strategies only. Any unused funds will be donated to arts programs in Petaluma. Full accountability will be made available upon request.

Copyright 2019 - A Coalition of Petaluma Residents Against the Fine Balance Public Art Project on Water Street