La Habra residents could be in for a major aesthetic change around town. 

Soon, a number of large developments might have to install public art on site to move forward in the city – integrating the vision of artists into the planning and design of the city’s urban landscape – after City Council members voted for the idea at their regular July 17 meeting.

Studies show that public art can combat social isolation and improve public safety – providing lighting at night for public walkways and even beautifying transportation infrastructure.

They can also carry a cultural and historical significance in places like Santa Ana, home to a number of legendary but fading murals that have in turn put pressure on local officials about putting resources toward their restoration.

In La Habra, such resources for public art could be enshrined.

There, city staff say a public art requirement for larger development projects could ensure the visibility of public art to every member of the community while countering larger buildings’ negative effects, such as noise, traffic, congestion, and pollution.

City staff are expected to come back at a later date with a formal ordinance, when the Planning Commission would make a recommendation for final consideration by the City Council, which unanimously directed staff earlier this month to move forward with the necessary zone changes.

A request for a time frame of when that policy would come back went unreturned by the City Manager’s office as of Tuesday.

While city staff, as of July 17, had not dug into the full details of the potential policy, the public art requirement would generally apply to all development projects with a building valuation of more than $1.5 million, said city management analyst Ginger Ivey at the July 17 meeting.

“And could require installation of art that is the equivalent of 1% of the project valuation or the payment of an in lieu fee for the same amount,” Ivey said, giving two examples: 

“The 117-unit Olsen project on Imperial Highway has a valuation of $17 million, and the 58-unit Valara project on Electric Avenue has a valuation of $5.3 million.”

In 2013, city council members approved a zone change that allowed public art and water features to be placed in required setbacks on private property, subject to planning commission approval.

But while the zone change allowed for public art in such spots, there was no public art installation mandate.

The following year, council members updated the city’s general plan with new ideas for the design of new development projects, enhancement of public places, improving streetscapes – specifically promoting public art to enhance pedestrian activity in retail commercial districts and corridors.

“Through the city’s existing development agreement process, a public art, or in lieu fee component has been included in some larger development projects. However, this process is subject to a project-by-project negotiation and has not been implemented consistently, since 2015,” Ivey said.

So far, such efforts have yielded two sculptures and two mosaics installed within private development projects, “as well as the collection of nearly $280,000 in fees,” Ivey said.

Council members approved the zone change without discussion, though one resident – and self-described champion of community art – lauded the idea in public comment.

“I’ve been a part of the (local) art for the past 10 years, I guess you could say, and I’m kind of the reason that a lot of these art projects have come up in the community – the murals, the art sculpture at Kaiser,” said Michelle Bernier, a city planning commissioner. 

“It’s really important to me that we have this,” Bernier added. “Because if we have art in our community, it helps our community thrive.”

Sandra de Anda, a local artist and Santa Ana resident, said public art can be a critical connection between individuals and their larger communities.

“It’s really important for young people to see themselves reflected in that art,” said de Anda, for reasons as simple as reaffirming what public spaces can look like in Orange County. “It used to be a suburban haven and now it’s changing and transforming.”

Public art, in turn, “gives character and authenticity to a place,” de Anda said. “It gives people more reasons to call a place home.”

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