Art’s at the Heart
Miami-based Pinnacle Housing Group develops affordable housing communities that look more like luxury properties and aims to bring entire neighborhoods up in value in the process. Their secret weapon? A major investment in public art.
Calling Pinnacle’s art installations “public art” is slightly misleading. The artwork is outdoors in the public eye, often standing out with bold designs, bright colors and noticeable placement. But the pieces are paid for by the four Pinnacle partners, purchased separately from project funding and permanently part of their respective affordable communities—even though they technically remain under private ownership.
Partners Louis Wolfson III, David Deutch, Michael Wohl and Mitchell Friedman have spent nearly $2 million on large-scale murals, paintings, sculpture and other pieces by up-and-coming artists. The works appear on site at 52 Pinnacle properties in Florida, Mississippi and Texas. They are eye-catching and often daring, including colorful murals that descend from the top of a high-rise (Vista Mar, artist Christian Bernard), a four-story tall figure of a dancing woman (Los Suenos, artist Romero Britto), and dozens more.
“We’re saying to our residents: This is going to be unlike any affordable housing you’ve ever heard of, seen or been a part of in your lives. We’re going to take it up to a new level. You’re going to live with more amenities, beautiful architecture, beautiful landscaping and art in public places,” said Wolfson, whose family has a legacy of promoting arts and culture in Florida. His uncle, Mitchell Wolfson Jr., founded the Wolfsonian Museum at Florida International University. His mother, Lynn Wolfson, was a major benefactress of Miami performance art organizations until her death in 2012.
Wolfson sees the pieces that grace the properties not only as an investment that benefits the residents and encourages them to be proud of where they live, but one that speaks to the company’s desire to improve the property values in every neighborhood where Pinnacle builds.
“Pinnacle has a reputation of sparking restoration and revitalizing neighborhoods. That’s because of the quality of these communities and the way they’re maintained and the colors and art and the architecture,” Wolfson III said.
Recently, the company expanded its artistic effort, partnering with the Moving the Lives of Kids mural project to paint numerous murals at the Little Haitian Soccer Park in Little Haiti. Volunteers, including many kids and teens, were residents of a nearby Pinnacle development who were paid a stipend for their time and trained by professional artists before beginning work on the murals.
“It gets them [to] be a part of improving their neighborhood and then taking pride in their neighborhood,” Wolfson said. The company partnered with the Miami Community Foundation and the Wolfson Family Foundation to make the project possible.
The Pinnacle principals’ willingness to spend large sums of personal money on art sets them apart from many affordable and multifamily developers. At least 30 U.S. cities have ordinances in place that mandate the incorporation of financial support for public art into any development agreement, but those ordinances don’t always apply to multifamily housing.
Scottsdale, Ariz. was an early adopter of a zoning overlay that requires commercial/mixed-use developers in the downtown district to incorporate public art into their projects or pay a 1 percent in-lieu fee. In late 2012, city leaders approved broadening the ordinance to include multifamily projects.
Over the 28 years that the original public art ordinance has been in place, funding has been used to establish Scottsdale as essentially a giant Southwestern outdoor art museum. There are more than 100 pieces of public art around the city. Some are multi-purpose, like the Paolo Soleri Bridge and Plaza—which is not only a bridge over the Arizona Canal, but a time piece (it functions like a garden sundial) and community space.
Others are historically inspired, such as Herb Mignery’s “Passing the Legacy,” a bronze, action-packed sculptural depiction of a Pony Express mail delivery handoff. The piece is also the end of the line for the annual HashKnife Pony Express ride, a 200-mile reenactment of the iconic Western mail service.
“The community loves it,” said Donna Isaac, associate director of Scottsdale’s Public Art Program. Scottsdale is also home to one of the five LOVE sculptures by pop artist Robert Indiana, which have become public art icons. The Scottsdale aluminum LOVE, which people can climb on and around, can be found in the Scottsdale Civic Center Mall.
Upcoming new public art for Scottsdale will include a new installation in conjunction with Alliance Residential’s Broadstone at Waterfront, a luxury mixed-use development that will include housing. A panel of potential international artists will be considered for the commission, and the public art feature may become a distinctive marker for the community’s entrance adjacent to the Arizona Canal.
In Scottsdale, selecting what art projects are funded with developer fees is a public process that includes public input and feedback, giving the community ownership of pieces that can become key community identifiers.
“The art actually becomes a landmark for them in their development. People will say, ‘OK, I’ll meet you at The Doors,’ and everybody knows where that is,” said Dan Symer, senior planner for the city of Scottsdale. The Doors, by Philadelphia artist Donald Lipski, were commissioned by Starwood Capital Group LLD, Golub & Company and IDM Properties.
Incorporating public art into multifamily projects is one way to attract more interest in a property but can become a wasted opportunity if the art isn’t actually interesting, says community engagement expert Peter Kageyama.
Author of a book called “For the Love of Cities” and co-founder of the Creative Cities Summit, Kageyama travels the country facilitating conversations between city leaders and citizens that often result in fun community projects.
“Developers and cities get a little cautious about this stuff. Either the art is not interesting and edgy enough, and you get this watered down pabulum kind of public art that’s really not great art, or it’s really not fun and weird enough that people would really enjoy it,” Kageyama said.
He’s developed a four-part sniff test for public art that’s worth considering before you decide to plan a project for your multifamily community.
“No. 1: Is it fun? No. 2: Does it invite you to touch it, climb on it, engage with it, maybe even skateboard on it? No. 3: Does it bring people together? No. 4: Does it make people smile? There’s lots of great art out there in public, but it doesn’t necessarily make you smile,” Kageyama said. He encourages the cities he works with to push for affection and joy generating installations.
Pinnacle’s choices have veered toward the interesting and aggressive, avoiding watered down pabulum completely. One of their bravest choices is a giant set of eyes that reside at the top of the Pinnacle Place apartments in Little Haiti. At 22 feet long and 12 feet high, the eyes, a piece called “I, Eye, See” by Rimaj Barrientos, seem to watch everything in the neighborhood below. Another development, Miami’s Friendship Tower, has giant metal figures above its main door representing a man, woman and child. Are they robots, aliens or futuristic beings? Only the artists, husband and wife team Nicholas Nehaniv and Colleen Kelley, know for sure.
“Some people love the art in the communities, some people hate the art in the communities, but that’s OK. One thing it will do is spark conversation,” said Wolfson. And if that leads an improved community dialogue, the art has done its job.
You can read additional multi-housing stories by Leah Etling on The Balance Sheet.