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Santa Monica City Council gives developer leg up on Bergamot Station

Santa Monica City Council gives developer leg up on Bergamot Station
Crews remove trees at Bergamot Station along Olympic Boulevard at 26th Street in Santa Monica in preparation for construction of Phase 2 of the Expo Line. (Michael Robinson Chavez / Los Angeles Times)

Wary of changing the character of the Bergamot Station arts complex or displacing the commercial galleries that have been its backbone, the Santa Monica City Council has given the inside track for an $84-million makeover of the former rail freight yard to a developer deemed least likely to radically change the status quo.

Shut out, at least for now, is a $92-million rival proposal that would have heavily benefited several nonprofit arts ventures, especially the Santa Monica Museum of Art.

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The museum would have received a fully paid new building and a $10-million endowment. Owners of Bergamot Station's 40 commercial galleries had worried that an upscale redevelopment focused mainly on the museum could overshadow their businesses and price them out of the arts district.

The 5-1 council vote after a nearly five-hour hearing Tuesday gives Worthe Real Estate Group, a major developer and property manager based in Santa Monica, exclusive rights to negotiate with the city in hopes of striking a deal that would allow a Bergamot makeover to go forward.

There's no guarantee that a final agreement will be reached, and no obligation on the city's part to go ahead with the Worthe plan. Council members decided to impanel a special citizens' commission to monitor the negotiations between Worthe and members of the City Hall staff, making sure that the interests and concerns of all the affected groups at Bergamot Station are taken into account.

The council sidetracked a rival proposal from 26 Street/TOD Partners that the city's Economic Development department had recommended be given the exclusive negotiating rights instead of Worthe. The 26 Street plan called for delivering a $7-million, ready-to-use and fully equipped new building for the art museum, which occupies rented quarters at Bergamot Station.

The promised endowment from 26 Street would have given the museum, which puts on contemporary art exhibitions but does not have its own collection, a cushion it now lacks. The museum's financial reports show that it meets expenses hand-to-mouth, relying mainly on donations to balance budgets of up to about $2 million.

Worthe's plan calls for just $2.9 million to build a basic structure for the museum. The museum board would be responsible for finding additional money to make its interior suitable for exhibitions, events and educational programs.

Commercial galleries would occupy 61,600 square feet at Bergamot under the now-favored Worthe plan. Moreover, the gallery owners would reap a substantial rent discount — Worthe projects charging $2.01 per square foot for commercial tenants, a 23% markdown from 26 Street's estimate of $2.60 per square foot.

Elsa Longhauser, the Santa Monica Museum of Art's executive director, accentuated the positive in an interview Wednesday. By voting to enter negotiations for Bergamot Station redevelopment after months of delay, she said, the City Council finally has begun the push for much-needed improvements at the site.

"The thing we wanted most urgently to happen was to move the process forward so Bergamot could begin to be revitalized and rejuvenated, to be ready for the train that is coming very soon," Longhauser said, referring to the westward extension of the light rail Exposition Line that includes a Bergamot Station stop.

Part of the impetus for redeveloping Bergamot Station is the impending return of rail traffic for the first time in nearly 30 years, as the former freight yard and depot begins to receive riders embarking or debarking at an already built station on the arts enclave's doorstep.

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