Art, Commerce — Exodus?
The fight over Bergamot Station’s future just got real. Again.
By Beige Luciano-Adams
The recent sale of two acres of privately owned land within Bergamot Station was not in itself shocking — the art colony’s cofounder, Wayne Blank, sold the parcel to RedCar Properties LTD after years of public sparring over the city’s plan to redevelop the site as a contemporary, mixed-use transit hub.
The twist came when tenants opened invoices from the new owners a few days after escrow, and just in time for Christmas: Surprise! Exponential increases — not in rent, technically speaking, but in passed-through property taxes, insurance and common-area fees.
Jeff Gordon, owner of Writers Bootcamp and the newly appointed spokesperson for Bergamot tenants, reports that annual property tax fees on his own triple net lease jumped from $5,400 to $73,000 — an increase of 1,250%.
That inflammatory math has re-escalated the standoff over development and brought rhetoric to crisis levels.
“I sold because of the uncertainty of what’s going to happen here,” said Blank, whose lease on the city-owned five-acre Bergamot parcel is up at the end of this year. “I don’t know if there’s a future; the city hasn’t made up their mind whether to develop it.”
Blank had been involved but withdrew from the development process in 2014; the city selected a plan by Worthe Real Estate Group and is currently reviewing advisory committee recommendations and feasibility.
Andy Agle, Santa Monica’s director of housing and economic development, reserved opinion as to how the city might respond until officials know more about the sale, but he defended the city’s attempts to preserve this “cultural gem.”
“The plan preserves the vast majority of the gallery spaces on the publicly owned portion. The privately owned portion … presents more of a challenge. And we’re seeing that challenge bear fruit right now,” Agle said.
The city’s approach balances preservation of the “best of Bergamot Station” while providing amenities to enhance cultural aspects and “broaden the commercial appeal,” Agle said.
Blank begs to differ. He is planning to pack up his Shoshana Wayne gallery and leave town, taking “the best of the galleries” with him. Where? “Probably down off of Jefferson, West Adams — anyplace where there are large buildings.”
The exodus is inevitable, he said, unless someone wants to grant him a five-or-10-year master lease extension.
“The city is talking out of both sides of its mouth, saying, ‘We’re going to keep the galleries’ and ‘We’re going to develop,’” says Blank, who calls the idea that the city can protect galleries by staging construction “ludicrous.”
Santa Monica officials, including Councilman Kevin McKeown, have taken issue with that zero-sum characterization in the past, citing the need to erect income-generating infrastructure around the revamped transit hub — which, despite the happy accident of a world-renowned arts colony blossoming there, remains Bergamot’s preordered destiny, having been purchased with transportation money.
Current animosities of course belie a complex history of shifting development visions, alliances and delays orbiting the fight over the fundamental character of Bergamot Station.
Like the children of divorce, tenants are caught in the middle.
Gordon notes they defer to the paterfamilias, who has kept their rents low over the years, and calls the city’s development logic “flawed,” its process “dismissive of what [Blank] created” — but still hopes Santa Monica will step in, like a good mother, to advocate.
“If the city doesn’t get involved in some way it will be very difficult for any of the tenants to make their case,” Gordon said, mentioning “forgiving taxes” or a temporary moratorium on fee increases. Hint hint.
Asked about the surprise cost increases for tenants, Blank replied: “I didn’t really think about it.”
Frustrated by news of the sale and cost increases, McKeown offered a short-term solution until the community can come up with a long-term one — and a little bit of levity:
“If reports of the sale price on that parcel of land are correct, somebody just picked up $35 million,” he wrote in an email. “Maybe he can write a Blank check.”
About a dozen of the 18 impacted Bergamot tenants have a lawyer, an emissary they sent to RedCar with hopes the company “will be interested in supporting the arts culture.”
A request for comment from the developer went unanswered at press time.
In 2015, as the rift over the commercialization of Bergamot Station reached an earlier boiling point, Blank tripled the Santa Monica Museum of Art’s rent, prompting it to flee to downtown
Los Angeles and rebrand as the Institute of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles (ICA LA).
Meanwhile, Revolver Gallery, “your Andy Warhol specialists,” is migrating to Bergamot Station from Beverly Hills and opening next month.
“If Bergamot Station leaves in its entirety … if they continue to drive us out … there are not going to be any galleries left. And the city has squandered one of their really great assets,” Blank said, going on to paraphrase Nietzsche’s “we have art in order not to die of truth.”
“There’s got to be a fairly significant economic impact. They don’t understand that. Because they don’t come here. You don’t see council people here very often,” Blank said.
The intersection of art and commerce is rarely an uncomplicated affair.
How the city with the most expensive rent in the entire nation ($4,800 on average, according to ApartmentGuide.com) will preserve an organic arts culture in an industrial plot that now has a major light rail station may take more than a commitment to development tradeoffs and subsidies.
It may take a collective prioritization — public and private — of cultural values that arose out of different material conditions than the ones we’re staring down in 2017.
To send a Santa Monica story tip to Beige Luciano-Adams, email her at InsideSM@argonautnews.com.