Petaluma’s ‘bathtub’ art project gets final approval

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The highly-debated Water Street art project, known by many as the “bathtubs on stilts,” can now proceed to construction permitting, fabrication, and installation after the final concept was approved by the Petaluma Public Art Committee last week.

With a 4-2 decision on Feb. 28, the board ratified San Francisco artist Brian Goggin’s final design for “A Fine Balance,” which will decorate the cherished downtown promenade with five Victorian ball-and-claw bathtub replicas held up by iron-like stilts. Committee members Christopher Smith and Catherine Alden cast the dissenting votes, and Margaret Geiss-Mooney was absent.

“It’s terrific to be able to continue the momentum at this stage,” Goggin said during an interview this week. “I feel excited about the direction we’re headed. At the same time, I do understand the sensitivity around the site, and I am hearing people when they are standing up in front of the arts committee and sharing their concerns or appreciating. It’s interesting to hear the spectrum.”

Opponents have until March 14 to appeal the decision to the City Council. As of Wednesday morning, no appeal had been filed, according to the City Clerk’s office.

Goggin’s proposal, which went viral last April when renderings were shared online, has been refined over the past 10 months since the draft concept was approved in May 2018. In July, the city council discussed the project and reviewed the contract with Goggin, allowing the process to continue as long as an amendment was added to potentially relocate the piece.

Through meetings with the city’s design review committee, which consists of management-level staff from planning, building, fire, public works and economic development departments, technical guidance was provided so the installation complied with city regulations.

Issues like ADA access have been resolved by adding curb-like platforms to the base of each sculpture. The poles will be square-shaped and made of steel to eliminate opportunities for vandals to climb them. The bathtubs have been spaced farther apart so large emergency vehicles and trash collectors can navigate the narrow turns onto Water Street.

“We’ve reached that sweet spot where it accomplishes all of these needs while still being visible from the adjacent streets,” Goggin said. “It still draws people down to that area.”

Two-thirds of the commenters at last week’s hearing were either against the project, or called for its relocation to a different site. Several speakers showed gratitude to the committee and Goggin, but were firm in defending the historic charm they said they wanted to protect.

“To me, the art is the river, and that scene,” Patty Paula said. “I think this location needs to be simple. It already draws people – people already come to Water Street. We don’t need something there to crowd the area.”

“Fine Balance” supporters maintained opinions that it was artistically appealing and would complement the site, encouraging visits to an area that’s become increasingly run-down in recent years.

“There’s no consensus in art,” said Josh Barlas. “If it got moved now, there’s going to be people who are extremely disappointed that it’s not in the spot they expected it to be in.”

In addition to public safety, opponents have expressed concerns over the installation’s footprint at a coveted gathering space, and questioned its connection to Petaluma.

Many residents have criticized the outreach process, and the alleged lack of public input at various stages of the process.

“I feel like a lot of us that disagree with (the committee) feel discounted, so it’s hard to trust the process,” said Mimi Pallas.

Committee member Caroline Hall addressed those sentiment during the final deliberations.

“Just because I don’t agree with you does not mean I’m not listening. I am, and I imagine most of the other committee members would say the exact same thing,” she said. “That being said, this piece was designed for this place. If we were to move it, it would be a complete redesign.”

After meetings last month with members of the Rotary Club of Petaluma and Petaluma Area Chamber of Commerce, organizers of the Petaluma River Craft Beer Festival, four of the sculptures were moved, and project architect Chris Lynch of MAD Architecture crafted a revised layout to help accommodate the popular event, according to city officials.

Although in an email submitted on Feb. 27, rotary representatives expressed persistent concerns over the dance area and toilet locations, and said they would still like to see the installation moved somewhere else.

Smith, who said he supported a change in the site, called on opponents to become advocates for the site, and channel the passion for fighting the project to rejuvenating Water Street.

Alden, on the other hand, felt the revisions had detracted from the initial concept after seeing a mock-up interact with the site at the story pole event in January.

“From the beginning, Water Street plaza’s crammed location and emotional community connection has made it a difficult space to place art,” she said. “If anyone could manage it, I thought Brian would be able to pull it off. But in the last year, the overwhelming deluge of structural restrictions and community protests seems to have sucked a lot of life from his once romping bathtubs.”

Committee Chairwoman Beverly Schor still believes the installation will achieve the goal the PPAC set out to accomplish when the process began in December 2014.

“There’s a lot to be done to save the grace and beauty of this little street that was once the city’s most dynamic hub,” she said. “It’s my belief that ‘Fine Balance’ is the perfect art piece to stimulate conversation, awareness and action to make Water Street what it once was.”

(Contact News Editor Yousef Baig at yousef.baig@arguscourier.com or 776-8461, and on Twitter @YousefBaig.)

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