DOWNTOWN — After a strained discussion with city officials about the state of “Chain Reaction,” the Landmark Commission agreed to send a letter to the City Council expressing concern about the sculpture’s deterioration
In writing the letter, commissioners run the risk of disqualification from future hearings about the city landmark, said Heidi von Tongeln, city attorney. The commission is a regulatory body, she said, and therefore cannot advocate for a specific landmark.
“I’m going to be really honest with you,” Commissioner Leslie Lambert responded. “I am getting increasingly pessimistic about the ability of this commission to do anything with this landmark. I feel our hands have been bound. We can’t really express anything about the future of the landmark.”
“Chain Reaction,” created by the late Pulitzer Prize-winning political cartoonist Paul Conrad in 1991, is owned by City Hall. Building Officer Ron Takiguchi maintains that the structure is unsafe, but a report from respected City Hall consultant Mel Green states that it is “not an imminent hazard nor should it be considered dangerous.”
The cost to restore the project is currently unknown with totals ranging from $100,000 to $450,000.
In January, council set a fundraising goal of $400,000 with a deadline of February 2014. Fans of the sculpture are charged with raising the funds. The council agreed to match up to $50,000 in public donations.
At Monday’s Landmark Commission meeting, Takiguchi said that he believes his analysis is consistent with Green’s, pointing out that Green did call for additional laboratory testing.
Green’s report said that the sculpture would be safe for the next 10 years.
City officials have cut multiple holes in the sculpture and tested fiberglass that is supporting hollow chain-links.
The fiberglass is “quite corroded” Takiguchi said, but Green’s report suggests that it simply be repainted.
Higher level city officials are currently trying to determine who will act as steward of the project, whether it should be Takiguchi, Cultural Affairs Manager Jessica Cusick, or someone else.
Takiguchi said that the scope of the work, and therefore the cost of the restoration, cannot be determined without further testing, particularly of the inside of the sculpture’s mushroom cap, which he said is “in a state of inconclusiveness.” Further testing cannot be completed without additional funds, he said.
Advocates of the sculpture have noted that it is hard to raise money without knowing the cost of renovations, creating a vicious cycle.
“I think the fundraising dilemma is that it’s harder to get people to commit, whether they’re big donors or little donors, trying to raise nearly half a million dollars as opposed to 100 or 200 thousand dollars, and the commission recognized that,” said attorney Ken Kutcher, who represents Conrad’s family.
Given council’s looming fundraising deadline, commissioners have expressed frustration with all of the question marks surrounding the project. Further frustration was apparent at the most recent meeting, when commissioners were told repeatedly by von Tongeln that their questions for Takiguchi were outside of the commission’s purview.
She reminded them that any decision made by council would then go before the commission.
“Nothing can happen to this sculpture without it coming to you first,” she said.
The commission was not allowed to ask questions about work done on “Chain Reaction” prior to its designation as a city landmark in June of last year, nor were they allowed to make any remark that might show them as biased advocates for the landmark.
“Should any one commissioner like to go speak to council, that commissioner is welcome to do so or to write a letter,” von Tongeln said. “However, depending on the remarks that are made, you may be disqualified from actually hearing any matter that comes before you regarding ‘Chain Reaction’ in the future.”
Commissioner John Berley said that it was a risk he was willing to take and the commission voted unanimously to send a letter to council.
The letter has not yet been written but commissioners went back and forth with von Tongeln as to what they might be allowed to include in it. The scope of the letter will be vague, focussing on the deterioration of the sculpture, to avoid potential disqualification.
They also appointed commissioners Lambert, Berley, and Ruthann Lehrer to speak on the commission’s behalf at a future council meeting.
David Conrad, the son of artist Paul Conrad, spoke during the public portion of the meeting questioning the motive of City Hall. Officials have not given any proof that the interior of the mushroom cap needs restoration, he said. Just to remove the cap, he said, could cost $200,000.