Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Art on the Four Corners

When the N. Pershing Drive intersection with N. Glebe Road is all renovated, sometime next year, it will have etched glass on the bus shelters, but for now the art will end there. Four large sculptures planned for the corner will not be a part of the intersection, and the county has not made significant plans to replace them.

“The artwork for [this] project will be the bus shelters that our arts work program designed,” said Angela Adams in a voice mail last month. She works in the Arlington County Public Arts Program. The word “Open” will be etched into the glass in various languages. Bus shelters in other neighborhoods have similar etchings.

When first reported here in June that the work of sculptor Judy Sutton Moore had been cancelled, Lois Athey, who sat on the original committee that picked Sutton Moore, said the story was the first she heard of the cancellation. Ms. Athey is a civic activist who works with tenants in Buckingham Village and the Gates of Ballston.

Pat Hope, the Buckingham Community Civic Association president, called the news of the lost art a “slap in the face.”

County staff involved in this discussion said the main problem with the artwork was its size and style for the historic corner. The Historical Affairs and Landmark Review Board, which regulates changes to the corner, largely killed the idea, officials have said.

However, Michael Leventhal, a historic affairs coordinator for the county, could not find the minutes from the particular HALRB meeting in which the art was discussed and dropped. Therefore, no one could say for sure whether people from Buckingham were on hand to discuss the decision.

“The BCCA was never consulted and there was no attempt to compromise the proposal to make it acceptable to HALRB,” Mr. Hope wrote in an email last month.

The project has been more than seven years in the making and has become “the project from hell” said Mr. Leventhal during an interview in September. Others have called it by similar names.

Only last month could the county finally hire a contractor, pledging over $800,000 if needed, to begin the process of redeveloping the gutters, sidewalks and crosswalks at the intersection. Other improvements, requiring other contracts, include more trees, fancier light posts and the bus shelters. In the past year, the utility wires have been moved underground.

Drivers should expect to see signs on Glebe Road announcing the road work soon, and the construction can begin two weeks after the signs go up, William “Bill” Roberts, the county’s project manager, said in a telephone interview yesterday.

This project has a long, tortured history, with too many cooks in the kitchen. VDOT controls the Glebe right-of-way, and therefore can veto decisions on lane widths, turn lanes and signals on the corner. (The rule about the signs going up for two weeks before work begins is VDOT’s rule, Mr. Roberts said.)

Although Jenco Group, of Arlington, owns much of the property on the corner, there are other owners and investment partners all who needed to sign easements to allow the work to go forward. Not all were eager to sign, Mr. Roberts has said in the past.

The plans themselves had to go through public review at the start, and the HALRB can control what is seen on the landscape.

When the HALRB had misgivings about the art, it became a layer of frustration that county staff did not want to deal with both Mr. Roberts and Mr. Leventhal have said.

As well, Mr. Roberts and Mr. Leventhal said the artist had gotten sick. For her part Ms. Sutton Moore could not remember ever being sick.

“I tell you what,” she said with recollection yesterday, “I did have surgery during that period of time, but that’s like a month, maybe six weeks, of recovery.” Since then, she has finished many projects, she said.

Mr. Leventhal, who sat on the committee that chose Ms. Sutton Moore, said that planning was a bit nonsequential in order—they had art before they knew what the corner would look like. It was the artist’s ideas for the corner that made the county realize they would need to underground the utility wires, he said.

“She really had the most interesting stuff,” Mr. Leventhal said. “She just didn’t do the same thing several different times.” He said Ms. Sutton Moore looked to the neighborhood and found inspiration in the immigrant experience.

In a profile in the Buckingham Independent News, the predecessor of the HeraldTrib, Ms. Sutton Moore talked about conducting research for projects like this, studying the architecture and talking with the neighbors. The story was also naively upbeat with an expected completion by the end of the summer of 2003.

Her plans included humanistic figures in boats and other modes of transportation, people who were arriving here, immigrants. Yet it was modern, and stainless steel with bronze, geometric. Not historic. Her figures—not quite “people”—often look similar to stainless steel bowling pins.

Ms. Sutton Moore said in an interview yesterday, “All I know is that the design was approved by the people who lived in the neighborhood. They gave their support to it....And the public art committee approved of it.” She said she had heard the project hit roadblocks, but never really understood why it died. “I was very disappointed that the Arlington project fell through,” she added later.

Her sculptures, are often large, 20 feet tall or more.

“Was any of the sculpture going to fit on the corner?” Mr. Leventhal said people asked.

The idea of the large sculptures appealed to the committee when they chose Ms. Sutton Moore’s work, Mr. Leventhal said. “I don’t know if we’d do it again that way…at the time it was great.”

In a voice mail last month, Ms. Adams said, “Our Research shows that we paid Judy Sutton Moore just over $1,000 to do design work in 2002 for the Buckingham four corners project.”

Mr. Roberts said he has been in contact with Mr. Hope about bringing more art back to the four corners.

In his email, the civic association’s Mr. Hope wrote, “My effort will be focused on trying to come up with something that would be distinctly Buckingham and acceptable to HALRB. It suddenly has become our project, but I think we can do it.”

Until then, however, the bus shelters are planned.

“I think the bus shelters will be a beautiful addition to the intersection,” Ms. Adams said in an interview yesterday.

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That corner needs public art like a hole in the head. It's bad enough that the County permitted a developer to destroy Villages 1 and 2. It would be even worse for Buckingham's historic significance if the County permitted new works of art (which would soon be covered with graffiti)at the corner.

Of course, everything will change if the County permits a developer to alter the appearance of the corner to add height and density. This major loss of historic context would be so great that the County could permit anything from works of art to public restrooms, spitoons and trash cans for the day laborers that will continue wait for work at the corner. The developer would most likely be happy to pay for the art (or anything else, within reason) in exchange for the increased height and density.

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