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Image-Conscious Industry Town Unveils Second Public Artwork


SANTA FE SPRINGS — A year ago, this city had more hazardous waste sites than public artworks. There was not a piece of art to be seen in the industrial city--unless you appreciate the stark outlines of oil derricks and massive storage tanks.

Now there are two sculptures--and counting.

On Tuesday, city officials dedicated "Undone Abstraction" by Claremont artist James Mitchell in a half-acre triangle of city park on Pioneer Boulevard east of Alburtis Avenue. The steel-slab sculpture, six feet high on a two-foot base, is the latest product of a year-old ordinance. It requires builders to donate an amount equal to 1% of their project cost toward public art for developments of at least $1 million.

The city's first piece of public artwork, Utah artist Dennis Smith's sculpture of a little girl reading, was dedicated about a month ago in front of the city library in the town center.

The public art ordinance symbolizes an ambitious exercise in image-changing for this town with only 15,000 residents, but more than 3,000 businesses, including two oil refineries and a pair of hazardous waste sites.

Two years ago, the city opened Heritage Park, a $4-million project. The 6.5-acre park contains the ruins of a 19th Century estate as well as its restored Victorian gardens, which in the 1880s put Santa Fe Springs on the map, city officials say. Also restored are a carriage barn, an English-style greenhouse and a windmill irrigation system.

Within the last year, the city also has opened to the public the Clarke estate, a long-forgotten 8,000-square-foot, turn-of-the-century mansion that the city bought and restored for $3.5 million.

The mansion's original owners departed in the 1920s about the same time as the city's ranching image, when geologists discovered what was then the sixth-largest known reserve of oil in the world, said Margaret Hammon, the city's cultural-resource specialist.

The oil boom turned Santa Fe Springs into a dirty, sprawling, bustling, unincorporated company town surrounded by vast open spaces, where orange groves shared fields with oil rigs. But as the crude reserves dwindled, the nine-square-mile city, incorporated in 1957, has found itself with plenty of real estate to offer.

"The welcome mat is out," City Manager Don Powell said of the city's well-known pro-business stance, which has attracted $60 million in developments annually for the last five years. Most of the city is zoned for heavy industry, and the city typically puts approval of industrial projects on the fast track.

Although there was no artist behind it, the landscape of heavy industry owns a beauty of its own, said Hammon, who has master's degrees in fine arts and public administration. On Carmenita Road below Imperial Highway, there remains a refinery on the east and dozens of huge storage tanks on the west side of the street. "At night, you should drive down that street," she said. "It's just beautiful. It's an interesting, glorious sight to see all those tanks lit."

In recent years, city officials and staff decided that local residents should benefit more directly from this commercial vitality. Hammon said the city's landscaped median strips and railway overpasses have long been a source of local pride. But City Manager Powell decided those enhancements were not enough and circulated the public art ordinance idea, which he said is modeled after similar regulations in Brea, Norwalk and Paramount.

The program in Brea, another former oil town, has resulted in the creation of 91 works of art since 1975. The rate now is about six a year.

The works in Santa Fe Springs must reflect one or more of three historical periods: Mexican/Indian, turn-of-the-century ranching or industrial modern.

Although only two pieces of art have been created so far, the Santa Fe Springs project has outproduced, by two, a similar program in Los Angeles. There, the City Council approved its own version of the ordinance in November, 1988, but a concern over possible lawsuits from developers has delayed its start, said Jane Kolb, a spokesperson for the city's Cultural Affairs Department.

No such legal challenge was forthcoming from Jeffery Potter, the 36-year-old president of Potter Development Corp. Potter paid for the latest sculpture so he could build his just-completed, office-warehouse structure.

Potter collects contemporary California art for his home and office. "It's like a little museum," he said of his Los Angeles corporate headquarters. "I never have enough art."

For a city with about 175,000 fewer pieces of artwork than the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the match was perfect.

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