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Petaluma seeks environmental review for ‘bathtub’ art project

Petaluma officials are preparing to study the environmental impacts of a controversial Water Street public art project, a move that opponents welcomed and said could be used for future challenges.

Meanwhile, the artist, Brian Goggin, has continued to work on “Fine Balance,” featuring five replica Victorian-era bathtubs on stilts, and is planning for an elaborate installation, delivering the piece to Petaluma by boat next summer.

The city is conducting an environmental impact report after threats of litigation from residents who appealed the Public Art Committee’s 2018 decision to move forward with the project. Opponents say the piece is not appropriate for the historic waterfront location along the Petaluma River in downtown Petaluma.

Goggin has said the claw-foot tubs would have been delivered to wealthy Petaluma merchants at the Water Street location in the early days of the city. The tubs also reflect the nearby Turning Basin, which rises and falls with the tides.

The Petaluma City Council in September denied three appeals and stipulated that the piece will be installed for at least 10 years, at which time it could be moved, become permanent, or be removed.

Planning Manger Heather Hines told the council in an Oct. 24 email that the city was moving forward with an EIR for the project.

“After considerable internal discussion and consultation with both the City Attorney and outside counsel, staff believes that preparation of an EIR for the project would put the City in the most defensible position given the litigious comments that the City continues to receive after the Council’s denial of the three appeals,” she wrote.

Hines did not return messages seeking answers to follow up questions.

The email said the city is preparing a request for proposals for environmental consultants. The cost of the EIR will come out of the art committee budget, she wrote.

“Fine Balance,” which is the committee’s first commissioned piece of public art, has a $150,000 budget paid by developers of large projects who choose not to install their own public art and instead pay into a fund.

While the city works out a new contract, Goggin said he is making progress on the project in his San Francisco studio using his own funds. He said he has nearly completed the first tub.

“The way I’m addressing it is to continue to work on the project so that I can continue the momentum,” he said. “I’m tired of being told to stop.”

Goggin said he hopes to finish the project next summer and be ready to install the piece once the EIR is complete. He said he is in talks with the captain of the Alma, a historic 1891 schooner, to deliver the art project when the boat sails up the Petaluma River during the Rivertown Revival.

The Alma plied the same route more than a century ago and would have brought bathtubs and other goods to the city back in the day, Goggin said.

“The process is part of the essence of the piece,” he said. “Knowing that the piece has made a journey creates a sense of pilgrimage for me. It’s more than just bathtubs on stilts. It’s part of the history of the area.”

Beverly Schor, chair of the Public Art Committee, said the panel will hear an update on the project at their next meeting Dec. 12. She said she hopes to get the project back on track soon.

“All of us are really motivated to get this handled,” she said. “We’re doing everyone a disservice by dragging this out.”

Critics of “Fine Balance” said they were happy the city was moving forward with an EIR. Michael Shockro, who along with his wife, Deborah, filed one of the appeals, said he was prepared to sue the city to force them to do the environmental analysis.

“Our goal in this process, if the city decided to proceed, was to have a court require an EIR,” he said. “It appears the city is doing it voluntarily. We will watch as that process unfolds and base our next steps on the process itself. I don’t believe this project will survive a public EIR.”

Dale Axelrod, who filed a separate appeal of the project on behalf of the group SaveWaterStreet.info, said opponents could challenge the EIR based on aesthetics of the art piece. He said opponents would like to see “Fine Balance” moved to a different location, like Steamer Landing Park.

“This is good news knowing they are doing an EIR,” Axelrod said. “The EIR is going to really demonstrate all the problems that are there.”

Goggin said he is looking forward to unveiling his project. He said he thinks much of the negative reaction to “Fine Balance” has been based on drawings, and he thinks people will be impressed with the real thing.

“I’m just so excited to show it to people. I feel like if they see it, they’ll like it,” he said. “It feels like people are responding to fears of what they think the piece may be instead of what it actually is. I hope people will keep their minds open.”

(Contact Matt Brown at matt.brown@arguscourier.com.)

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