Artistic License?

Public art is a great thing, not least because of its ability to communicate complex ideas through symbolism. That was on the minds of city officials in the San Francisco suburb of Livermore, California, when they completed a new public library a few years ago and commissioned a $40,000 mural near the entrance to portray the tree of knowledge, with small portraits in its branches of great artists, writers, scientists and other historic figures.
by | November 2004

Public art is a great thing, not least because of its ability to communicate complex ideas through symbolism. That was on the minds of city officials in the San Francisco suburb of Livermore, California, when they completed a new public library a few years ago and commissioned a $40,000 mural near the entrance to portray the tree of knowledge, with small portraits in its branches of great artists, writers, scientists and other historic figures. The mural is now installed, and, sure enough, it teaches us something: the value of spelling. Of the 175 words on the mural, 11 are misspelled, including the names of physicist Albert Einstein ("Eistein" on the mural), playwright William Shakespeare ("Shakespere"), painter Vincent van Gogh ("Van Gough") and sculptor Michelangelo ("Michealangelo"). City officials are embarrassed, but they're also divided about what to do. Some thought it was best to leave the mural alone and invite visitors to spot the misspellings. But most members on the city council decided they couldn't live with the image of "Gaugan" (painter Paul Gauguin) outside the library, so they voted to spend another $6,000 to have the artist, Maria Alquilar of Miami, return and fix the misspellings. No dice, Alquilar told the Miami Herald. "People that really love art, they wouldn't even have noticed it if [city officials] hadn't pointed it out."

A PIECE OF THE ACTION

Some experts have come to the conclusion that, in the age of transportation gridlock, the suburbs simply don't work. They're too spread out and, therefore, not economical for transit. The answer, they say, is to create greater density near transit stops so a portion of suburbanites can walk to bus stops and train stations. But anything that raises densities runs into the buzzsaw of suburban politics, the neighbors who reflexively object to anything different. If you were to cut the neighbors in for a piece of the action, would they still object? Answer: Bring on the condos! This is pretty much what's happening in Washington, D.C.'s suburb of Vienna, Virginia, where 70 homeowners have banded together to offer their tract houses to a developer to be replaced by 1,300 condos and townhouses. Key to the project: The neighborhood is a half-mile from a transit station. For that reason, some think the county government will approve the project. The twist, of course, is that the idea of selling out originated with the homeowners, not a developer. Pete Young, who came up with the idea and persuaded his neighbors to sign on, sees nothing odd about this. "Like it or not, this is the way the free-market system works," he said.

STREET SENSE, ANYONE?

The psychology of sidewalk dining may be a little hard to grasp, but the impact is apparent. When restaurants move tables outdoors--or, for that matter, when stores have sidewalk sales--good things happen on the street. People walk more, owners improve their storefronts, and sales go up. So you'd think every city would encourage sidewalk dining, right? Wrong. Take Dallas, which tolerates but doesn't encourage stores and cafes moving out on the sidewalk. You can get a license for such things, but it'll cost you. (Average price of a right-of-way lease: $2,200 a year.) Owners of small cafes think this is nuts. "When you bring the indoors out, it warms up the neighborhood," said the owner of Vitto Italian in the Bishop Arts District. For their part, city officials say they're not as concerned about money as safety when it comes to sidewalk uses. "We don't want anyone tripping and falling over chairs or having to step into the street," said one. Fine, say the restaurateurs, then regulate the cafes, but don't charge them.

PARK YOUR MONEY HERE

Want a hot investment tip? Put your money into parking. That's what some investors are doing, the Wall Street Journal reports. Some are buying entire downtown parking decks, but others are buying only a few spaces. Take David Narrow, a London accountant. He recently paid nearly $600,000 for 20 parking spaces in downtown Chicago, sight unseen. Narrow plans to lease out the spaces for $150 or more a month. (That's cheap. Average monthly rate for parking in downtown Chicago is $263.) A condo developer in Boston spent nearly $270,000 recently for five spaces in his city, so he can offer buyers a place to both live and park. It's not hard to see why investors are lining up for these deals. Parking rates are rising in most places. In New York, the average price for an unreserved spot is $413 a month, up 38 percent from a year ago. These price increases attracted John Golde's attention. He recently spent $75,000 on three parking spaces in Chicago and already has them leased at $150 a month. "I wanted an investment that involved minimal involvement and decent returns," he said. Oh, and there's the appreciation, too. There are some condos under construction near Golde's parking spots. When they're finished, he expects to sell his spaces for $35,000 apiece.

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