The Watsonville City Council approved a new developer fee that it hopes will jump-start an arts renaissance in a city that has for decades struggled to find funding and space for the arts.
If approved at an upcoming second reading, the fee will require developers—both commercial and residential—to pay 0.75% of their estimated total construction costs, with a cap of $75,000. The proceeds will go into a Cultural Fund the city will use to create a public art master plan that will serve as a roadmap for Watsonville’s artists to follow in the years to come.
The city council approved the fee unanimously after making significant alterations to staff’s original recommendation to implement a 0.25% fee with the ability for developers to opt out by creating their own public art piece, donating artwork or incorporating a cultural facility into their projects.
Councilman Jimmy Dutra led the effort to nix the opt-out option, and Councilwoman Rebecca Garcia made the motion to increase the fee percentage.
Garcia first moved to increase the fee to 1.5% after seeing that other local jurisdictions, such as Capitola, charge developers 2% to fund public art projects. In addition, the city’s Parks and Recreation Commission recommended the fee be set at 1.5%. But after hearing Community Development Department Director Suzi Merriam say that the fee would create an onerous hurdle for developers, Garcia sliced her proposal in half.
City Attorney Samantha Zutler added a stipulation to the council’s final motion, saying that Tuesday’s decision will be dependent on if the changes to the original ordinance are legally sound and if the increased percentage is deemed feasible by city staff.
More than three dozen people, many of whom are deeply entrenched in Pajaro Valley’s art community, spoke in favor of the fee, saying that public investment in arts is overdue.
“As performing arts organizations, as individual artists, we’ve all had to fight for the same pot of money and we’ve all had to scrape the barrel as much as possible in order to survive,” said Watsonville native Alex Santana, a visual and performing artist. “We have very limited funding and very limited opportunities for resources.”
Gabriel Barraza and his family, including his two kids who were dressed in Folklorico attire, said that the art fee would help the city address several economic barriers that many families face when trying to expose their children to the arts.
“Supporting the arts is crucial to so many people because it’s a way that they can express themselves,” Barraza said. “There has been, historically, a concentration of art into the hands of people who can afford to do it. To a lot of people, art is a commodity. But it is not a commodity. It is an expression of the human spirit.”
A handful of speakers got emotional during their comments as they reflected back on how art has impacted them. That included Watsonville Film Festival Executive Director Consuelo Alba-Speyer, who this year brought back the celebrated local film fest to an in-person format for its 10th anniversary—it moved to a virtual format the past two years because of the pandemic.
“I get emotional because there has been so little support from the city to do this incredible work for generations, and in spite of that here we are celebrating this beautiful community and all their wonderful contributions,” Alba-Speyer said. “This is a very, very exciting opportunity … It’s the best investment the city can make into its community.”
The fee is part of phase 2 of the city’s Public Arts Program. The first phase, approved by the council in 2019, established an approval process for community-initiated public art that has been implemented several times over the past three years. The second phase covers the art funded—either fully or partially—by the city.
Staff said that if the original recommendation of 0.25% was in place in 2021, the city would have raked in $416,500 last year.
The fee will apply to all new residential development of five or more units (including affordable housing) and all commercial and industrial developments with a building valuation of $500,000 or more and all remodels with a valuation of $250,000 or more.
Tuesday’s approval also included the creation of a Public Art Advisory Committee appointed by the parks commission and approved by the city council.
The council also reviewed documents in closed session from Pajaro Valley Arts regarding the purchase of the historic Porter Building on downtown Main Street. Zutler said there was nothing to report out of closed session.
PV Arts has said it hopes to turn the Porter Building into a haven for artists by creating gallery exhibits, art retail space and a multipurpose room for performances, meetings, events, workshops and additional special exhibits.