Apr 25 2011

Favorable Lease for Arts Center Contrasts with Pool Lease

On April 18 the Piedmont City Council unanimously approved the first reading of a seven year lease permitting the newly formed Piedmont Center for the Arts free use of the City-owned former Christian Science Church located across from Piedmont High School at 801 Magnolia Avenue .

The rush for approval of the lease is being generated by the proponents of the project who have secured commitments from various contractors to provide services at reduced prices and started plans for activities.   The group is eager to move into the facility and wishes to take possession of the property by June 3

Great enthusiasm for an arts center in Piedmont has been expressed by Piedmonters interested in a place for younger Piedmonters and others to participate in the performing and visual arts, including the well-known Piedmont Choirs organization. Plans for concerts, art exhibits, and performances have been mentioned with the Council responding enthusiastically.  A solicitation letter from The Piedmont Center for the Arts was received by all Piedmont residents on April 23 using the former Church’s address of 801 Magnolia Avenue, prior to Council approval of the ordinance and use of the property.

The lease will require staffing of the Arts Center from 9 am until 6 pm 7 days per week.  If use is desired past 11 pm, a permit must be obtained from the City.  Parking needs or restrictions were not mentioned in the lease or at the meeting.  The Piedmont Planning Commission will not be reviewing the proposal changing the use of this property from church to arts center operating 7 days per week. There has been no indication of notification to neighbors and no neighbors have been present at meetings to note their support or objections.  (Letters with concerns about the proposal were sent to the Council and excerpts are noted at the end of this article.)

The second reading of the ordinance and expected approval by the City Council of the lease is scheduled for May 2 in City Hall.  Read Proposed Lease Terms

Council Adopts a “Single Choice” Approach

For years the church building was left vacant and no proposals for use solicited because of plans to build a Civic Center covering two blocks, including underground parking, various buildings, and an Olympic size swimming pool. (See model in City Hall.)  The former church has suddenly been proposed as a rental without notice to the community that it was now available for development and without entertaining alternative proposals.  The arts group worked directly with the City Administrator on its proposal, preempting other potential users of the opportunity.  While there may be broad support for an arts center, some residents have questioned the process used: rapid approval of a project based on staff endorsement and without city-wide citizen input on alternative uses.

Unlike many municipalities, in Piedmont there is limited space for new uses or development, making the opportunity for consideration of all alternatives and an open process desired by many Piedmonters.

General community input for new development of facilities has not been solicited since the 2007 General Plan survey was completed by residents as part of General Plan development 3 years ago.  This survey solicited preferences without providing cost estimates and, therefore, is of limited utility.   However, there was no mention in the survey of an arts center, while 19% of residents supported, for instance, a reading room.

A similar “single choice” approach to development without community input has been used in two other Piedmont situations:  Blair Park and the remaining portion of the Magnolia church building which is currently being reserved for a potential child care center by the Recreation Department staff.

Pool & Arts Lease Terms Compared

The Council’s final approval of the Magnolia building lease will be in stark contrast with its refusal this past February to enter into an extended lease with the Piedmont Swim Club (PSC).

The City Council required numerous conditions of the PSC to renew their lease, including capital contributions of $33,333 per year approved by the City, extensive uncompensated City/School use of the pool, and costly insurance not normally required of pools.  The Club asked for a long term lease to encourage memberships and increase funds available to invest in the pool facility, however, without a motion or vote on the issue, four members of the Piedmont City Council by consensus directed staff to cease negotiations with the Club and to prepare for City funding and management of the pool.

The Club paid for all aspects of the aquatic facility – including pools, buildings, machinery, maintenance, insurance, salaries, water, garbage, and surrounds – while providing free use for City and School programs and low cost use by many children.  Over the past 4 decades this arrangement spared City taxpayers millions of dollars – up to $350,000 annually in 2007 dollars according to the City’s consultant.

In contrast, Piedmont taxpayer monies were used to purchase the Church building for over $700,000.  The arts group indicated the need to have a long term lease to encourage donations from the community for the project with preliminary estimates for building improvement costs of about $80,000, and the City agreed. 

Also in contrast to its position on the pool lease, the City has committed to pay numerous facility costs for the arts center:

  • for the sewer lateral inspection and repair and/or replacement as necessary, at a cost of up to $8,000 to the City’s building fund
  • for water
  • for garbage collection

Again, in contrast to the pool lease, there are no provisions in the arts lease requiring City or School use of the building for their programs.

The estimated $80,000 repairs to the building will provide the arts group exclusive use of the building for 7 years at $1 per year and permits subleasing of the property with all proceeds going to the arts center supporters.  In contrast, the Swim Club was asked to provide a capital fund of $33,333 each year for the benefit of the City – or $233,000 over 7 years.  

Once more in contrast to the pool lease, upon termination of the Magnolia property lease, the City must reimburse the arts group for any outstanding capital improvement costs pro-rated for the years of use.  No reimbursement was offered to the Swim Club for its capital improvements.   As the City buy-out of the lease was a new aspect of the Magnolia property lease discussed in a closed session meeting, the specific language was not available at the time of the first reading of the ordinance.  It is unclear  what ongoing  accounting would be provided to the City, or if the rental income from users (sub-leasees) would reduce the City’s reimbursement obligations.

Letters to the City on the proposed lease

A Letter from John Galt

“It would be good to have a study of how to best use the property instead of just responding to a proposal placed before the citizens. My initial reaction is that a cultural arts center is a low priority.

Peeling paint and cracked windows are a minor matter. It would be nice to know what the structural problems are.

I would vigorously oppose an underground parking lot or an olympic sized pool on those grounds.”

An Excerpt from a letter by Rick Schiller:

“There has been no vetting, no public discourse on this subject. Minimally there should be an advisory Planning Commission hearing so the public can ascertain any ramifications and explore other options. Agendizing this two weeks before the very contentious Blair Park vote has the appearance of a “back door deal.” I ask that this meeting only be a preliminary advisory and discussion meeting, with an advisory Planning Commission hearing scheduled. If this item is passed now, the 2nd reading will only be a token legal requirement.

I am wholly supportive of encouraging the Arts in Piedmont, especially for children and teens. Should the Council move forward with this item, a significant block of time should be donated to the Piedmont Unified School District? This will encourage important artistic endeavors in our youth. Encouraging artistic growth is equally important as encouraging athletic involvement and the latter has received the Lion’s Share of attention and funding. Balancing the need for more arts resources is the requirement to do it properly and openly, as is true with any facility in town.
The City now operates under a rigorous and contemporary total indemnification requirement of private organizations using public facilities. This concept came into sharp focus during recent Swim Club negotiations, and was encouraged by some Council members. With that model firmly in place, the same rigorous indemnification must be required of the Piedmont Center for the Arts should this item be approved.

The newly formed non-profit Piedmont Center for the Arts group will have exclusive access and use to what is evidently the most desirable portion of 801 Magnolia. They will have sole control of that left wing portion, rent free, for ten years. Although they may be putting up about $84,900 in total for renovations, that amounts to a modest deferred rent of $707.50 monthly amortized of 120 months. That group will have exclusive right to rent the facility out and profit. The City should partner and retain some control. If left entirely to Piedmont Arts Association, there could be a biased or other than impartial manner in which the facility is rented out.”

An Excerpt from a letter by Tim Rood:

“Given Council Members Fujioka and Wieler’s concerns about protecting the City from the lease arrangements that had been in effect for 46 years at the Piedmont Swim Club, I will expect that any lease you enter into with a private organization at 801 Magnolia will provide for the following:

1. Any improvements, upgrades, maintenance or repairs to the premises, no matter how minor, must be done by a licensed and bonded contractor approved by the City according to plans and specifications approved in advance by the City.

2. The tenant must agree to indemnify, protect and defend the City against any and all allegations or claims related to the tenant’s use of the premises.

3. A minimum of 750 annual hours of use must be provided the Piedmont Unified School District at no charge to the district – of which at least 375 annual hours would be exclusive use by the School District with no access to the facility for the lessee.

4. A minimum annual contribution  of at least $33,333 must be made by the lessor to a capital improvement fund, to be administered by the City, which must revert to the City at the conclusion of the lease. No disbursements from this fund should be allowed for any reason without the City’s prior written consent.

5. The City must insist on the right to require any physical changes to be made the premises at any time, regardless of expense, and if the lessee fails to make these changes within 5 days, the City must have the right to make the changes itself, at the tenant’s expense.

Based on your records, I am sure you will agree that these sensible provisions are absolutely necessary to prevent the citizens of Piedmont from incurring harm at the hands of this private organization seeking the exclusive use of public property.”

“Note: unlike 801 Magnolia which was purchased with City funds, the pool facility was built with private donations.  Nevertheless, during one period when the Piedmont Swim Club operated the pool facility under a long-term lease with the City, it paid rent of $38,000 per year (from 1993 to 2008).”

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