Misfit review process

Sculpture dedicated to Los Seis de Boulder highlights difficulties in permitting Boulder’s public art

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Caitlin Rockett

Next year, when Jasmine Baetz’s sculpture ‘El movimiento sigue’ takes its permanent home on 28th Street, on a sliver of grass in front of Burger King, it will sit in nearly the exact spot where three Chicano activists died in a still-unsolved car bomb in 1974: Florencio Granado, 31; Heriberto Teran, 24; and 20-year-old Francisco Dougherty.

But until then, the sculpture will sit on the northside of the Boulder Museum of Contemporary Art (BMoCA), a resting point after more than a year of complications in the public art permitting process kept the sculpture from its proposed historical site. 

The situation isn’t unique: According to City of Boulder staff in multiple departments tasked with helping bring public art projects to fruition, several projects like Baetz’s have endured an overly complicated permitting process, costing artists and the City time and money, with at least one project never seeing the light of day. 

It’s a problem that’s been brewing for nearly six years, since the City formalized its public art program in 2015. But now, with new leadership at a newly merged Planning and Development Services department, staff are hopeful they can streamline the process to keep artists like Baetz from languishing in bureaucratic minutiae. 

“The best way I could categorize [the problem] is that the process used to permit public art was a process that was designed for other things,” explains Matt Chasansky, manager of Boulder’s Office of Arts and Culture. “The permitting office (Planning and Development Services) follows the building code very closely. They’re very mindful of how to build a house or a commercial building or an ADU or all of these things, but there was no real definition or criteria that applied to public art. When an art permit was applied for, frontline staff did the best they could to find a category for it. The results of that were that there was never a situation in those six years where a piece of public art was reviewed as public art. It’s not anybody’s fault or mistake but simply the nature of how these things are viewed.”

While a graduate student in fine arts at CU Boulder, Baetz became aware of the two unsolved car bombings that ultimately killed six Chicano activists in Boulder in 1974 — one near Chautuaqua Park and the other at 28th Street. In 2017, Baetz found grant funding and enlisted the help of the community to create a sculpture dedicated to “Los Seis de Boulder,” the six of Boulder. The concrete, clay and grout monument featuring the faces of the dead stands on campus at the TB-1 building, just east of Macky Auditorium, where, in ’74, Chicano activists had been engaged in a weeks-long occupation demanding continued funding for the Educational Opportunity Programs that helped many marginalized students get to college.

“When we were working towards that installation, part of the conversations that we had at our community making days were around marking the sites of the bombings,” Baetz says during a recent phone call from Charleston, South Carolina, where she now resides. “[TB-1] is this historic location that needs to be marked, but also these places where students were killed, but there was no tangible marker.”

A stone inscription was placed at Chautauqua Park (May 2020), but Baetz hoped to facilitate another community-made sculpture for the 28th Street site, which she approached the City about in late 2019. 

It seemed easy enough at first. The City has a program that allows artists to donate works. There was a sliver of open land in almost the exact spot where the bombing occurred, just big enough for a wedge of a sculpture. Working with Mandy Vink, administrator for public arts at Boulder’s Office of Arts and Culture, Baetz began the process of getting the appropriate permitting. She thought her biggest obstacle would be a right-of-way permit from the Colorado Department of Transportation, but that permit came fairly easily. 

“Then [Planning and Development Services] said, ‘This needs a sign permit,’” Baetz says. “And I was like, ‘OK, not great, because that’s an additional permit beyond the permit we’ve already gotten, but fine.’ … But very quickly [Planning and Development Services was] like, ‘Nevermind, it’s not a sign. We need you  to get a multifamily dwelling permit. 

“[The sculpture is] 6 feet tall, 5 feet wide and under 2 feet in depth,” Baetz adds. “So it’s solid. There’s no dwelling or residing or being in it. … But in order to submit a permit for a multifamily building, you need to be a certain kind of contractor, and because I had [worked with contractors] who do not build buildings, they couldn’t apply for the permit.”

After four months of waiting for an answer, according to both Baetz and Vink, Planning and Development finally issued an exception around October 2020 allowing Baetz to obtain the permit she needed — but then quickly informed her that the maps she’d been given to determine whether the piece of land was a viable site for the sculpture were wrong. Turns out the sliver of land was private property. 

“From all perspectives that both she and I had, this is the map that was provided by our colleagues; we have reason to believe this is accurate,” says Vink, from the Office of Arts and Culture. “For this relatively small structure to get stuck in a four month review to then [have Planning and Development] come back and say, ‘Actually, there’s conflicting boundaries,’ it was like, wait, what? There were so many subconscious cues along the way that we were moving in the right direction — everything seemed to be advancing. And then it was like, how did we not know this earlier?”

The City picked up the tab for the extra costs incurred from the unforeseen permitting issues, and there’s an active conversation with the private property owner to see if the City can enter a licensing agreement or easement for the sliver of land the sculpture will sit on.

Until then, “El movimiento sigue” remains at BMoCA.

Other projects have suffered even worse fates. A project called “Oculus,” developed by students in CU Boulder’s Environmental Design program, endured similar permitting snafus, lasting so long that the semester ended and the students were never able to install the work at the proposed site near the Harbeck-Bergheim House, which is now Museum of Boulder.  

“It wasn’t so much that what was being requested [by Planning and Development Services] killed this project,” says Chasansky of the Office of Arts and Culture, “In this case it was time — the back and forth with permitting officials, leadership at Planning and Development, meant that the environmental design class graduated and moved on. We ran out of options. It wasn’t possible to line up a new class to redo the process, and we couldn’t hire a fabricator to finish the job because it would double the cost. 

“It’s these unintended consequences of the necessary care Development Services take that lead to projects getting scuttled,” Chasansky adds. “The fact of the matter is there’s nothing ready to say, ‘This is how you review public art,’ the criteria — they had to make some stuff up, invent things. That’s where the real challenge is. That fact we don’t have a process for public art.” 

Vink is optimistic that Baetz’s sculpture will find its way to its historic home, but she and other City staff, including Jacob Lindsey, the newly minted head of Boulder’s Planning and Development Services, want to make sure future projects are executed with less hassle. Lindsey says the complexity of public art permitting was one of the first issues that was brought to his attention when he started the job in November 2020. 

“The Arts Commission and City Council have recognized this challenge and they deserve credit for putting it on our plate,” he says. “And the City staff have done an amazing job of convening around this issue and putting forth a good faith effort to make some changes.

“But,” he adds, “Boulder has a complex permitting landscape because of many different regulatory hurdles that include compliance with flood regulations, compliance with traffic safety regulations and third, and most importantly, structural requirements to be sure that something doesn’t fall and injure someone. Those different regulations can create a challenging regulatory process for people who aren’t experienced with navigating those regulations every day.”

At the same time, Lindsey understands that some art projects are being subjected to regulations that don’t fit the scope of the project, and says Planning and Development Services is collaborating with other City staff to streamline the process. 

“That includes staff from the City Attorney’s office, the Planning department, Arts and Culture and Finance, and one of the challenges that we have identified is the complexity of the permitting process,” he says. “We do think that permitting processes can be streamlined and simplified for smaller scale projects [like] murals [that] don’t require review for life safety, or they require lesser review for life safety due to the nature of the artwork.”

Vink, who managed public art projects with the City of Denver and Denver International Airport before taking on her role in Boulder, believes that communication is one of the first steps to alleviating the issue, simply making sure that someone from Planning and Development Services is present throughout the development of the project so they understand the backstory and the needs from day one. 

“It feels like the review process was so much about a misfit, where there’s these templates that are great for buildings and for structures, but to try and have a public art commission go through that template makes for so much extra work,” she says. “I think the round peg/square hole analogy fits. Obviously this process isn’t the right fit, and so we really need to move on this as opposed to continuing to try the same thing again and again.”