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Santa Monica Arts Community Torn Over Bergamot Conceptual Plan

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By Niki Cervantes
Staff Writer

June 13, 2017 -- A conceptual plan to redevelop the Bergamot Station Arts Center that includes a seven-story hotel has created a rift in Santa Monica's art community as it heads to the City Council tonight.

On one side are tenants -- including some two dozen galleries -- who are asking for the creation of a non-profit organization to preserve the old light industrial site’s unique blend of funky chic and distinctly non-commercial appeal.

“We strongly believe that it's the residents of Santa Monica who should benefit from all of the profits that come from Bergamot Station Arts Center and not a developer that only has dollar signs in mind,” gallery owner Robert Berman warned other tenants as he urged them to show up at the meeting Tuesday.

On the other side are five of the 11 members on the City's Arts Commission, who on Friday issued a letter titled "Destruction of Bergamot Arts Center is Fake News."

"Contrary to statements made by people who oppose change at Bergamot, the proposal before the City Council will not only ensure that Bergamot continues to be a central part of the cultural fabric of our city, it will add new artistic uses and opportunities designed to help whittle away the cultural deficit that currently exists in the city."

The battle comes as the City Council Tuesday night considers a conceptual plan that more than triples total development at the five-acre, City-owned site ("Santa Monica Council to Take Next Step in Bergamot Arts Center Development," June 8, 2017).

The plan includes the proposed 120-room, 82,600-square-foot hotel that split the Bergamot Station Advisory Committee tasked with evaluating the entire 220,000-square-foot project near a new Expo light rail line.

Also under consideration is allowing the project’s developer, the Worthe Group, to become the master leaseholder for up to five years. The proposed lease agreement with the City would limit rent hikes to only the Consumer Price Index (CPI).

Leases for existing tenants -- 27 galleries, designers, a nonprofit theater company and a café -- expire December 31.

Thirty-two of the existing galleries and businesses now at Bergamot have already formally protested handing the enclave’s future over to a commercial developer, Berman said.

Fears the rising rents will drive out the existing tenants are unfounded, according to the five Arts Commissioners who signed the letter -- Chair Michael R. Myers, Phil Brock, Ed Horowitz, Michael J. Masucci and Laurie Yehia.

They note that rents at Bergamot are projected to stay below $2 per square foot through 2022, with annual increases held to an average of five cents a square foot.

"It is an accepted fact that the cost of real estate in Santa Monica is prohibitive to the arts," the Commissioners wrote. "We are a virtual gated community to artists and presenters."

"Yet, the Santa Monica City Council, Arts Commission and Cultural Affairs staff have ensured that the five-acre city-owned parcel has a density lower than any other commercial property in the city."

At least one neighborhood group is rallying behind the galleries' efforts to safeguard Bergamot from commercial development they fear will eventually lead to the cultural hub's demise.

“The Worthe proposal fails to include adequate protections for the existing galleries,” wrote the board of Northeast Neighbors, which represents residents in the eastern part of the city north of Wilshire Boulevarrd.

It also “fails to acknowledge that maintaining the diverse, independent and unique art experts who can be found in the Bergamot galleries today is essential to its future as a recognized center for the arts."

Berman said tenants are asking the council to approve direct lease extensions through a proposed “Mutual Benefit Non-Profit” and that the current management be retained.

The tenants’ “Save Bergamot Station” campaign hinges on the “ArtBox concept,” described as a “virtual village of re-purposed containers” for the southeast corner of the Bergamot lot.

The group said the alternative, also called the Bergamot Gallery Plan, could be used as soon as January, when the Agensys parking contract ends.

City officials believe some development of the site is necessary to subsidize the cultural uses and relocate the parking in a structure built by the developer.

“The revitalization of the Arts Center requires significant financial investment in order to upgrade the Site’s infrastructure and existing buildings, and to construct the new improvements and a shared parking structure,” the staff report said.

Staff also notes that the land was purchased by the City in 1989 using transit funds with a future transit use in mind. Commercial development on the site also could help subsidize Santa Monica's Big Blue Bus system, which is losing ridership

The site, staff wrote in its report to the Council, is “both highly strategic and highly sensitive for the future of both transportation and local culture -- as well as the fiscal sustainability of Big Blue Bus in a time of dynamic change in transit economics.”

“While some advocate for no changes to the current status quo," staff wrote, existing factors "all point to the need to plan for the future vitality of Bergamot Station.”

In all, the proposal going to the council is little different from the original concept submitted by Worthe, selected by the council in 2014 to move redevelopment along in anticipation of the Expo Line and its adjacent stop.

In addition to the hotel, Worthe's conceptual plan preserves four of the existing buildings.

A museum, split between grade and below grade construction, is earmarked for 21,100 square feet,

In addition, 65,700 square feet is for gallery, nonprofit and cultural uses; 30,000 square feet for “creative” office space (down from the original 44,000 square feet); 7,000 square feet for restaurant/café space; another 4,000 square feet for “community space” and a new 4,000 square feet for “arts-related” uses.

A final 600 square feet is for a bike center (or 4,000 square feet less than the original concept).

The plan includes much of what was recommended by the Bergamot Advisory Committee -- except for the hotel, which six of the 11 members worried would over-shadow the nature and scale of the existing site and damage business during construction.

Jorge Casuso contributed to this report


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