It's been 27 years since the last train rumbled into Santa Monica's Bergamot Station. For the last two decades, the former rail depot has enjoyed a second life as an arts complex, with its corrugated steel rail-yard warehouses repurposed as homes for art galleries and the Santa Monica Museum of Art.
Now the trains are about to return: A new station for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority's Exposition Line is being built alongside the Bergamot Station arts complex. When the line opens in a year or two, it will deliver riders to the arts hub's doorstep.
Santa Monica city officials are now faced with deciding what kind of arts hub riders will step into — the funky-but-chic one that now exists or something a bit more elegant and likely to generate more substantial tax and lease revenues for the city. The question has put the art museum and the 40 other arts district tenants, most of them commercial galleries, on opposite sides of the tracks.
The most expensive of the three plans by competing private developers would cost $92 million and would substantially revamp the city-owned portion of the 7.5-acre site, or about three-fourths of the property. It would keep several of the old warehouses, while reconfiguring the campus to include a 100-room hotel, some nonarts retail shops and an underground parking garage.
In addition, the developer would pay for a new, 20,000-square-foot home for the Santa Monica Museum of Art, doubling its size.
The galleries and other small tenants say they're open to improvements but nothing that would change Bergamot Station's essential character. They worry that in an upscale new development, they might no longer be able to pay the rent and that disruption from extensive construction at the site would kill those businesses allowed to remain while it goes on.
The $92-million plan that's favored by the museum and was recommended by the city's economic development department "threatens the operations and economic survival of the current tenants," the Bergamot Station Gallery and Cultural Assn., an alliance of 40 tenants, said in a recent news release.
The group claims the plan would turn Bergamot into another Grove, referring to the big Fairfax District shopping center. That claim reflects "a little bit of a misinformation campaign" on the opponents' part, said Jason Harris, the Santa Monica economic development manager.
Harris said that what he calls "Bergamot Station 2.0" would neither overshadow art's preeminence at the site nor put the smaller tenants out of business.
"We're saying to [potential] developers, 'Create as much or more art space than exists today.'"
All development proposals were required to include a hotel, retail, a new museum building and parking improvements, and Harris said that a further requirement to protect smaller tenants was rents 40% below market rates for commercial uses, and 60% for nonprofit arts groups.
The rift between the galleries and the museum became public in February, when the City Council was poised to decide which of the three contending developers should be tapped to begin the extensive negotiations aimed at reaching a development deal.
The city's economic development unit has recommended entering exclusive negotiations with 26Street TOD Partners, whose plan calls for building a new $7-million museum at the developer's cost, with 26Street providing an additional $10 million for the art museum's endowment. The museum's executive director, Elsa Longhauser, testified at the February meeting that the plan was "a rare opportunity to enhance one of Santa Monica's most important cultural assets.... The Bergamot Arts Center will be a vibrant town square and a unique destination."
The new museum would feature promised "iconic architecture" by Rios Clementi Hale Studios. The California Institute of the Arts is interested in jumping in on the 26Street plan, opening a new digital media facility on the site. Harris said UCLA also has come forward, wanting to quarter an arts "think tank" headed by famed opera director Peter Sellars at Bergamot Station if the 26Street proposal goes through.
But unanswered questions about the development proposals and gallery owners' objections prompted the City Council to table the matter until city staffers could gather more information and input from the galleries and other "stakeholders."
Expecting the council to take up the question again soon, the alliance of galleries and other smaller tenants recently began an online petition campaign against major changes. As of late last week, it had gathered more than 7,100 signatures opposing any major revamping of Bergamot Station. Art museum officials declined to comment.
And instead of the prospect of brilliant new digs, the Santa Monica Museum of Art now faces a threat that could open a big hole in its budget. It's part of the privately owned portion of Bergamot Station, and landlord Wayne Blank says he is tripling its rent in response to what he considers its disruptive and unneighborly vision for Bergamot Station.
Blank, who owns Bergamot Station's Shoshana Wayne Gallery, said the hike means the museum will pay $22,000 a month instead of $7,000. He said he's also asking for $53,000 in back rent because the museum "just kept paying what they wanted to pay" after he sent it notice of an increase.
Lynda Dorf, a spokeswoman for the Santa Monica Museum of Art, declined to comment.
Blank, the driving force behind Bergamot Station's transformation into an arts district, said he has saved the museum $3 million over the years by charging it 70 cents a square foot in rent compared to $2 for other tenants. Now, he said he is simply treating everyone the same.
Until a few weeks ago, Blank was a partner in one of the development teams. He said he resigned from it so he could be free to speak his mind against any plan that would fundamentally alter Bergamot Station's character. Blank insisted that imposing the rent increase on the museum and aiming to torpedo the 26Street plan was a matter of principle, not sour grapes over his development team's $80-million plan not being recommended by the city staff.
Harris, the city's economic development manager, said the additional information and community input the City Council asked for in February probably won't be ready for its consideration until August. Meanwhile, he said, the Metro light rail trains might start pulling in as soon as next year if work to extend the Expo Line proceeds speedily. What riders can expect to find when they get off at the Bergamot Station stop remains an open question.