These panels, and similar ones hung throughout Berkeley's new animal shelter, are the project's public art elements. Photo: Emilie Raguso
Rooftop panels, and similar ones inside Berkeley’s new animal shelter, are the project’s attempt to include art, officials say. Photo: Emilie Raguso

While most new structures built using city bonds are decorated with public art, Berkeley’s new $12.4 million animal shelter is not. City staff skipped out on the municipally-mandated public art process during construction and the reasons why remain difficult to pin down.

Since the project’s inception in 2002, shelter plans ran into a range of obstacles, from difficulty finding an appropriate site to a series of cost overruns. As a result, said Deputy City Manager William Rogers, the city decided not to set aside $142,500 of its budget for public art, despite a Berkeley ordinance that requires municipal projects to do just that.

Others familiar with the project said the decision not to include public art in the shelter was due to a failure to put the proper language in the bond measure that funded construction. Whether that was an oversight or an intentional decision to ensure flexibility in the project budget is unclear. 

The shelter's animal motif panels are readily visible from the highway. Photo: Emilie Raguso
The shelter’s animal motif panels are readily visible from the highway. Photo: Emilie Raguso

“I don’t know why the bond measure didn’t include an art requirement,” said Rogers. “But what I know is we basically put the dollars into animal care and the facility so we could do things like prevent transmission of disease so fewer animals need to be euthanized. And we ended up with a state-of-the-art facility that’s absolutely in the best interest of the animals.”

To compensate for the lack of public art, the city incorporated artistic architectural features — plastic panels that depict cat and dog figures — into the building itself, said staff.

July 2 city staff report said the shelter’s inability to include public art was due to a lack of money and the “difficult economy“: “Due to budget constraints, the Berkeley Animal Shelter did not make the 1.5% of its eligible budget available for Public Art. Many Berkeley residents had expressed to staff and to the Civic Arts Commissioners their disappointment that there would be no public art in the new facility.”

Rogers said this week that public art was never considered by the city’s arts commission because of uncertainties associated with the project, as well as the difficult economic times faced by the city.

“It was always touch-and-go with the budget for the animal shelter,” he said Monday. “So it wasn’t clear at what point we’d be able to do something related to public art.”

He went on to say that language in the city’s public arts ordinance allows the city to forgo the allocation if it would cause a “detriment” to a municipal project.

Berkeleyside had previously asked multiple city staffers, late last year, about whether the project had fulfilled its percent-for-art requirement. One said, “I think we are meeting the requirements for public art but I’m not sure if we’ve fully met them yet.” Another said, via email, that “A percentage of the project funds were spent on art,” but did not respond to a request for a detailed breakdown of expenditures: “The project incorporated artistic elements into the architectural design of the shelter. This includes artist renderings of dog and cat images at the top of the building, architectural elements and signage.”

Public art in Berkeley

Two monumental sculptures mounted on the I-80 Bicycle/Pedestrian Bridge are one example of projects completed as part of the city's public arts program. Photo: City of Berkeley
Two sculptures mounted on the I-80 Bicycle/Pedestrian Bridge are one example of projects completed as part of the city’s public arts program. Photo: City of Berkeley

Berkeley’s public art process includes the “percent-for-art program,” which directs a small portion of the budget from certain projects into a fund that’s used to create art in the city. As part of an annual process, eligible money goes into an arts fund, which is overseen by the Public Art Committee. Money from the animal shelter never went into this fund for consideration.

The percent-for-art policy dates back to 1999 when the city passed the Public Art Resolution to establish that 1.5% of the budget for eligible capital projects is put into a public art fund. That resolution built on an earlier voter initiative, Measure S, to fund downtown improvements, as well as a 1985 ordinance to establish the process for selection of public art projects.

Completed public art projects in Berkeley include the mural in honor of Maudelle Shirek that hangs in the old City Hall ($38,000); sculptures on the I-80 bicycle and pedestrian bridge ($113,000); and the HERETHERE sculptures in South Berkeley on Martin Luther King Jr. Way ($50,000). In addition, all the new branch library projects have incorporated public art elements ($159,000).

The 1999 resolution notes that “the development of the physical infrastructure of the City provides numerous opportunities for creative expression by integrating artistic features into said infrastructure,” but it also includes language to allow the city to opt out of participation in the program if an undefined detriment would pose problems: “All City departments shall include in any application for grant funds for an Eligible Capital Project an amount sufficient for the Public Art Element, unless said inclusion would be detrimental to the City.”

Animal panels provide artistic flair, says city

Rogers said it’s this piece of the resolution that led to the decision not to spend the $142,500 that might otherwise have been allocated. (According to a detailed budget document from 2010, that estimate had been listed initially, but was not included in later revised project costs.) Because there was “always a question of affordability,” said Rogers, the project never came before the arts commission for consideration or discussion.

“The budget was really frail,” he said. “Had we tried to spend additional dollars on art, what we would have lost was the operating room and the clinic.” That, in turn, would have increased operational costs over time because the city would have had to contract out for those services.

Rogers said the city “did as much as we could” to include art installations by using renderings of animals on the roof and inside the buildings. The plastic panels decorate the facility and cover the mechanical systems on the roof.

Panels that repeat the animal motif appear throughout the project, inside and outside. Photo: Emilie Raguso
Panels that repeat the animal motif appear throughout the project, inside and out. Photo: Emilie Raguso

Those panels didn’t come cheap. According to Rogers, design, fabrication and installation of three sets of panels — on the roof and side of the building — cost $345,000. Another $11,000 was spent on a recessed alcove in the roof that includes lighting and creates a space for interior art.

A city staffer acting as a city spokeswoman, Pam Embry, said via email in December that “these elements were coordinated with the chair of the art commission at the time.”

So, while a significant chunk of money ultimately was spent on art elements, there was no public process for dialogue or decisions about them, said Jill Posener, a former Animal Care Commission member who spent many years helping plan the new building on Bolivar Drive. She said, throughout the planning process, it was hard to get a straight answer from the city about public art for the project.

“Many of us felt that having public art at the animal shelter was an important piece of the project,” she said. “We were completely blocked. And there was nothing the arts commission could do either.”

Posener said the artist who designed metal gates at the city’s corporation yard as part of another public art project had expressed interest in creating something for the animal shelter as well. “Something like that would have been integral to the project,” said Posener. “That’s the kind of art we wanted, and that’s what we should have had.”

Lack of public art was due to oversight in bond language, some say

Four library renovation projects also failed to include percent-for-art language in their bonds, but library board members made art a priority, said one city commissioner. Photo: Nancy Rubin
Library renovation projects failed to include percent-for-art language in their bonds, but library board members made art a priority, said one commissioner. Photo: Nancy Rubin

Berkeley Civic Arts Commission member Robbin Henderson, who chairs the city’s Public Art Committee, said the commission only learned about shelter project plans “after the fact.” She said the commission had been “very, very perturbed” to learn that the project wouldn’t set aside money for public art. Henderson said the commission was told the city attorney had ruled that, because percent-for-art language had not been included in the original bond measure, the money could not be set aside. (The city was unable to confirm this as of publication time.)

Henderson added that the same omission had taken place with all four city library construction projects, but that the library’s board of trustees had been adamant that public art be included in those projects, so “they actually made it happen.” She said she was unaware of any other city projects during her five-year tenure on the commission that had faced the same problem.

Henderson said she and other commissioners were in the process of speaking with their council members to ensure that percent-for-art language is included in all future projects: “I think that art really is a morale booster…. And it is an expression of civic pride.”

Councilwoman Linda Maio, who appointed Henderson to the arts commission, said Wednesday evening that it would be important going forward for the city to include that language. And she said she and other council members had wanted to see a serious public art piece at the animal shelter.

“We all agreed with it. We wanted it to happen,” said Maio. “I think it just got overlooked in terms of getting it put into the language. There needs to be a lot more scrutiny, and I think the arts commission will be watching really carefully now. Once something like this happens, everybody learns that they have to pay attention.”

A challenging, expensive project

Rogers said there were other items in the shelter’s budget, such as its air filtration system, that were prioritized due to the public’s interest in better facilities. Rogers said the system improves animal health and has created a safer environment by limiting the spread of disease. (A recent budget indicates the system cost in the vicinity of $1.14 million.)

The shelter's new digs provide a safer, calmer atmosphere for animals, supporters say. Photo: Nancy Rubin
The shelter’s new digs provide a safer, calmer atmosphere for animals, supporters say. Photo: Nancy Rubin

“The animal shelter was always a little bit more expensive and there was the need to control costs. That put limits on the public art,” he said this week. “And so what we got is a terrific animal shelter that keeps animals safe and healthy in a really nice space. Everything’s a balancing act.”

The shelter project ran into many complications over the years, as the city struggled to find an appropriate location and, later, complete construction due to geographic challenges on the Bolivar Drive site that ultimately was selected.

According to a project overview from October 2012, the revised budget is estimated to run about $12.4 million. (See the April 2013 detailed budget here.)

In addition to the original $7.2 million bond measure, in 2010 city officials approved another $5.5 million in financing due to increased costs. The city needed the extra money, in part, because site selection took so long, which led to increased construction costs; and there was a higher-than-expected price to buy the Bolivar site, according to a 2010 staff report.

The July 2013 staff report regarding the lack of public art money spent during the course of the project was written to allow the Berkeley City Council to accept a one-time donation, with a $1,500 value, of framed photographs of shelter animals. (The city’s rules about public art require council approval of donations valuing more than $1,000.) The gift, from Hewlett Packard and Snapfish, featured the work of a local photographer who had donated his time and materials to make portraits of shelter animals to hang throughout the building. The report noted that similar private-public partnerships would be important going forward, as the city continues to struggle in the face of trying financial times.

In other news, this week the city’s zoning board will consider a request to demolish the old animal shelter at 2013 Second St. The city described the former space as “an old and unsafe building badly lacking space and isolation facilities,” and said “the building was discouraging to visitors who may have wanted to come to the shelter to adopt an animal.” The poor condition of the old site led to the public campaign that ultimately funded the majority of the new shelter’s construction. The city plans to sell the Second Street property to help cover its costs from the Bolivar Drive project.

Planting in the sky: Berkeley’s secret rooftop gardens (08.14.13)
Dog licence fees to rise, other Berkeley Council decisions (05.22.13)
Photos: Berkeley’s new animal shelter is officially open (02.04.13)
After a decade, Berkeley celebrates a new animal shelter (01.31.13)
New Berkeley animal shelter is finally rising (08.12.11)
Free adoptions at Berkeley Animal Shelter this weekend (06.03.11)
Pets of the homeless to get help at People’s Park clinic (05.19.11)
Aquatic Park cleans up, tackles brackish reputation (08.09.10)

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Emilie Raguso (former senior editor, news) joined Berkeleyside in 2012 and covered politics, public safety and development until her departure in 2022. In 2017, Emilie was named Journalist...