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Martinez ready to give utility boxes artistic appeal

A portion of the artwork titled "Kites" by Alexandra Riddle is one of the designs approved for Martinez's utility box art program. The City Council signed off on the project last month, with plans to have the boxes painted by this summer. (Photos courtesy of city of Martinez)

Following the lead of other Bay Area cities including Walnut Creek, Concord, San Jose, Pleasanton and Dublin, the Martinez City Council recently approved a pilot program to make four utilitarian utility cabinets into public art pieces.

The Council voted 5-0 in February to approve designs for city-owned cabinets off Marina Vista Avenue downtown near the Contra Costa Community College District building; at Alhambra Avenue at F Street, near Safeway; at Alhambra and K Street; and at the south end of the city, at Alhambra at Paso Nogal Road, near the Virginia Hills Shopping Center.

The council’s approval also included pursuing agreements with four artists — one for each box — to do the artwork, based on designs they had submitted for selection to take part in the program.

A sample of Louise Belle’s artwork titled “Metamorphoses,” one of the designs approved for Martinez’s utility box art program.

Zach Seal, a senior management analyst with the city, said the idea has been under discussion since 2015. Twenty-four area artists answered a call from the city to submit sample artwork, Seal said; four were selected for the trial program by the city’s Parks, Recreation, Marina and Cultural Commission.

“We had a lot of different designs to choose from, to sift through,” Seal said.

All four cabinets are city-owned; PG&E didn’t want any of its boxes used, Seal said, because they want their boxes uniform in appearance to make identifying them easier for crews doing repairs and maintenance.

The artists won’t paint directly onto the cabinets, but instead their work will be transferred onto “vinyl wraps” similar to those used for advertising on the sides of buses or BART cars.

They take special solvents and tools to remove, Seal said. They have a five-year warranty, but other cities with utility box art programs report that they often last 10 years, he added — much longer than a painted surface would last.

Seal said the artwork should beautify the public thoroughfares, and help resist graffiti “tagging.” The pilot project is anticipated to cost about $10,000, with funding already allocated.

Resident Felix Sanchez said these enhanced utility boxes will bring new people into town.

“In other cities, these boxes … are entered into Ingress and Pokemon Go!,” said Sanchez, describing two popular augmented reality mobile games. “I will geotag them myself — this will definitely bring people in — this is a core thing with these games.”

Martinez officials looked to June to have the utility boxes become public art pieces, although it is unclear what impact the coronavirus could have on that timeline. If the artistic value-added boxes prove popular, and additional funding is identified, treating additional boxes could be considered, city officials said.

All of the selected designs can be found on the city’s website.