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Public Art Proposal Was the Last Straw for Environmentalists

Environmental groups rallied to kill a proposed public sculpture planned for a water purification plant set to open in a few years because it depicted a giant straw.

Rendering courtesy of the city of San Diego

More than 30 million people have watched a video of an adorable sea turtle with a plastic straw stuck up its nose. Marine biologists pull the straw out with a pair of pliers. It’s excruciating to watch.

The turtle has become the de-facto poster child of a popular environmental campaign: eliminating single-use plastic straws. A state bill signed into law this year and taking effect in January requires full-service restaurants to only give straws upon request.

The growing anti-straw movement’s latest target: a piece of public art proposed for a new water facility in San Diego.

The city hired artist Christian Moeller to come up with a design for a $975,000 piece of public art at the North City Pure Water Facility, a water purification plant set to open in a few years. Public art is funded through a city policy requiring 2 percent of project costs to pay for new public art.

Moeller, a Los Angeles-based artist known for his large-scale, site-specific public artworks, presented his concept for the water facility art to the city’s public art committee earlier this year. His plan was to build a sculpture depicting two giant plastic straws stuck into the ground in front of the water facility.

Moeller didn’t respond to multiple requests for an interview.

Larry Herzog, a professor at San Diego State University and a member of the public art committee, said several members of the panel were not happy with the proposed design.

“I was immediately concerned about a striped straw that, to me, symbolizes everything that’s wrong with plastic and it polluting the ocean,” Herzog said.

The city also floated the straw sculpture idea to the public via an online survey. When local environmentalists saw it, they flipped out.

“Don’t let the city memorialize a monument to a product that endangers our natural world,” read one online campaign to stop the city from building the straw sculpture. “Erecting two intertwining, 78 ft. straws is wrong.”

Over 600 people signed the petition asking the city not to build the sculpture, according to the local chapter of the Sierra Club, the group that organized the online campaign.

Deborah Knight, director of the environmental group Friends of Rose Canyon and the activist who alerted the Sierra Club to the straw art, said when she saw the artist’s proposed design posted on the neighborhood app NextDoor, her jaw dropped.

“I was like, what is the arts commission thinking?” she said. “A nearly million-dollar plastic straw? Do they not have any concept? It was supposed to symbolize our relationship to water, but basically straws symbolize our relationship to plastic pollution.”

Knight also took issue with the proposed location of the expensive piece of public art.

“It’s not a good place to spend money on public art,” she said. “There’s no sidewalk. Zero foot traffic. Nobody walks there. There’s a few warehouses and that’s it. It’s just commuter traffic zooming by on a busy road. This is an absolutely foolish place to put a piece of public art. Put the public art where the public will see it.”

The city puts pricey public art pieces at city facilities that aren’t very accessible to the public because it says it has to — the funding anchors the art to the site. But a closer look by Voice of San Diego in 2016 revealed that the city might be overly cautious in its approach and that locating the art in nearby locations where the public might actually get to enjoy it could be within the rules after all. The city attorney issued an opinion on the matter after Councilman David Alvarez asked the office to look into it.

“Placing public art off-site may be permissible if there is a nexus between the artwork and providing water service, such as educating the public about water conservation, but water conservation cannot be used as a pretext for all projects whose purpose is to benefit the general public,” the opinion reads.

Still, the city is proceeding with plans to put public art at two new water facilities in coming years. Christine Jones, the interim director of the city’s Commission for Arts and Culture, which oversees the public art program, approved the design for a public artwork at a water facility in Oak Park even though the commission’s advisory board recommended not to approve the artwork, citing concerns about public accessibility.

The artwork at both facilities will total about $1.3 million. There will be some public and private tours at the Pure Water facility once it’s built. But for art critic Robert Pincus, that’s not enough. He said the city should do anything it can to make the art as accessible as possible.

Pincus also said Moeller’s design, aside from disregarding the growing distaste for plastic straws, is just plain bad.

“I’m really just scratching my head, frankly, looking at this thing,” he said. “It’s like why? Can’t we do better than this?”

Moeller has officially scrapped his idea for the straw sculpture. City spokesman Scott Robinson

said Moeller is re-evaluating his conceptual approach to the project at this time.

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