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Santa Monica rail yard idea stirs alarm at arts complex

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Over its 15-year existence, Bergamot Station in Santa Monica has evolved from a ramshackle Southern Pacific rail yard turned water-heater factory into a world-class destination for art lovers.

Its dozens of galleries, the Santa Monica Museum of Art and other artsy operations -- housed in scattered warehouse-style buildings clad in corrugated metal -- each year attract hundreds of thousands of visitors, many seeking the Bergamot Cafe's signature mint lemonade.

So revered is the erstwhile Red Car stop, which dates to 1875, that city officials have designated it the heart of an arts and entertainment area that is expected to blossom fully once the long-awaited Expo Line light rail comes to town in a few years.

It therefore came as dreadful news to gallery owners and other tenants that a suggestion is bubbling up that Expo Line officials should consider using the property for a maintenance yard.

About 25 of them gathered at the cafe Wednesday morning to hear from Wayne Blank about plans for a letter-writing and e-mail campaign to squelch the idea. Blank, co-owner of Shoshana Wayne Gallery, is the man Santa Monica tapped in 1993 to develop the complex.

Bergamot Station is slated to have a station along the route, which will run from downtown to near the ocean. The maintenance yard proposal, Blank noted, has come not from Expo Line officials, whose draft environmental report identifies a nearby industrial property owned by Verizon as their location of choice. Rather, the idea is being floated by nearby residents who oppose having a 24-hour-a-day maintenance yard across the street.

"I'm really supportive of the train coming through, and I love going to the art shows at Bergamot Station," said Michael Tarbet, a spokesman for the area's mainly low- and moderate-income tenants. "But it's only fair to look at it as a possible alternative.

"This is the only minority community in town," he said, "and it seems unfair to burden it again."

The area's previous burden was imposed in the 1960s, when construction of the 10 Freeway split what is known as the Pico neighborhood in half. The highway displaced many families and ensured that those remaining would be subjected to steady doses of noise and pollution, Tarbet said.

Particularly affected were residents of Delaware and Virginia avenues and Exposition Boulevard. The site proposed for the Expo Line yard is on Exposition near Stewart Avenue, just east of Bergamot Station.

Santa Monica bought Bergamot Station in 1989 from Southern Pacific Transportation Co. with $17.3 million from its city bus line and county transportation funds.

City Council records from August 1989 state: "Its shape and overall size make it a good location for a rail car storage and light maintenance yard."

But city officials say the site has become such a valuable cultural center that it no longer makes sense to convert it. Nor do they approve of using the Verizon site, given its proximity to residents.

"Neither site is appropriate," said city planning director Eileen Fogarty.

She added that the city and the Exposition Construction Authority, the agency created by the state to design and build the $2-billion-plus project, have agreed "to work with a broker to come up with an appropriate site west of the 405 [Freeway] . . . that meets their needs and is acceptable to the city."

Samantha Bricker, the authority's chief operating officer, said that although the agency has agreed to work with the city to identify other locations, "right now the [Verizon property] is being recommended as the site."

Bergamot Station, she added, was "never studied. It's a non-starter."

On April 2, the authority's board is scheduled to discuss the Expo Line's route through Santa Monica. The city has urged that, after Bergamot, it continue along Colorado Avenue.

A decision about the maintenance yard will not be made "any time soon," according to Bricker.

Gallery owner Craig Krull said he is optimistic that the city and the authority will agree on a suitable site for the yard and that it won't be Bergamot Station.

"It would be a shame," he said, "to miss the golden opportunity to build upon what we have and make it even better."

martha.groves@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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