There’s no way Santa Monica’s arts mecca is going to survive city plans to ‘revitalize’ it

By Charles Rappleye

The new light rail stop at Bergamot Station may threaten the galleries that thrive behind it Photo by Ted Soqui

The new light rail stop at Bergamot Station may threaten the galleries that thrive behind it
Photo by Ted Soqui

Bergamot Station started as an afterthought and thrived under the benign neglect of a city that had better things to do.

Now the arrival of light rail has convinced the city of Santa Monica that it should “revitalize” Bergamot.

That’s a good one. Like revitalizing Facebook, or Amazon, or the Golden State Warriors. None of them are broke and they don’t need fixin’. Same goes for Bergamot Station.

The place is funky, it’s a little ramshackle, and it has its own internal divisions. But to judge by the crowds that routinely throng the place, Bergamot Station has been an unmitigated success, an anchor to an arts community that currently enjoys a global reputation for creative excellence.

Yes, yes, Santa Monica’s officers and councilmembers are quick to acknowledge how they love and admire what’s been going on the past 20 years at the tucked-away, easily-missed former rail depot. But times are a’ changing, goes the council chorus, and Bergamot’s going to have to change with it.

Change how? Let’s see … a six-story, 100-room hotel. More than 40,000 feet of office space. Restaurants, bars and retail shops. Perhaps a new building for an art museum. Oh, and 60,000 square feet of art galleries. More than $80 million in new investment.

Seriously? Have the people promoting these features even been to Bergamot Station? You couldn’t begin to cram all that stuff on the Bergamot lot without first demolishing all the existing galleries.

But, says the city, that’s the beauty of it. They’re going to rebuild the place from the ground up, starting with below-surface parking and working from there. And don’t worry about the galleries; they’ll be offered below-market rents to keep that funky feeling alive.

Don’t bet on it. Developer Jeff Worthe is seeking an exclusive, 75-year lease from the city and would be setting his own terms just as he has in Burbank and Encino and other locations where he’s put up major high-rent projects. Worthe is based in Santa Monica and is collaborating with Frank Gehry on a huge new residential, commercial, hotel and retail tower on Ocean Avenue. The thing is a beast, but it’s at least suited to its downtown locale; such ambitions are distinctly out of place at Bergamot.

Worthe was initially brought in as a compromise and asked to partner with Wayne Blank, the arts entrepreneur who holds the current Bergamot lease due to expire next year. Blank is the person most responsible for development of the arts colony, in part by holding gallery rents well below market rate. But Worthe stopped talking to Blank months ago, and Blank has dropped out of the partnership; Worthe will clearly be setting his own agenda. The developer did not respond to a message left at his office seeking comment for this story.

What’s remarkable is that this has all unfolded in plain sight and over several years but now appears as a fait accompli. And all under the auspices of a City Council that boasts a slow-growth majority for the first time in years.

Leading the charge to “revitalize” Bergamot is City Councilman Kevin McKeown, who likes to point out that he spent years as the council’s liaison to the City Arts Commission and takes pride in his progressive credentials. It was McKeown, speaking at the close of a four-hour hearing in September 2014, who succinctly framed the absurdity of the council’s position. There were at the time several competing plans, all of which promised millions of dollars of new investment at Bergamot.

“The majority of people we’ve heard from expressed some concern that what we’ve heard so far may be too much,” McKeown observed. What he drew from that, he said, was that “We have to build consensus before we can build.” Never mind that a majority of speakers would indicate a consensus right there; McKeown was seeking something more.

It was clear that he recognized what was at stake. “The question to my mind that requires consensus,” McKeown mused at the hearing, “is can we revitalize Bergamot without overdeveloping it and inadvertently killing it.”

This was the conundrum. It appears obvious to me that the answer is no, you cannot, but McKeown was not ready to stop there. “We can and should and probably must improve Bergamot,” he continued, “but we have to do it without destroying it and without replacing it and without losing its authenticity.”

McKeown’s resolution that day was to throw the whole tangle over to an “advisory committee” charged with developing that elusive consensus he was seeking. More than a year later, that consensus has yet to emerge. Instead there has been a long round of palaver between Worthe and various “stakeholders,” with little resolution and few firm commitments.

For the gallerists at Bergamot, however, the talks were a learning experience. In their encounters with Worthe they found they would be secondary to the process, getting little consideration as to the shape of redevelopment at Bergamot and less as to the future of their individual enterprises.

With the imminent arrival of the Expo Line, those gallerists have now decided to band together in outright opposition to the expansive plans of the city and the developer. In March more than 30 tenants at the site banded together in what they are calling the Union of Bergamot Station Galleries, with the express intent of supplanting Worthe as the leaseholder and continuing to operate Bergamot in its current incarnation.

As stated in their petition, members of this ad-hoc union contend they can “successfully maintain the original organic feeling of the existing art gallery complex … while simultaneously enhancing and improving on it.” They propose a new restaurant and “a potential museum,” but all on a much lesser scale than that envisioned by  Worthe and the city.

Gallerist Robert Berman was the first signator to the petition, and is vocal in his frustration over dealings with the city and Worthe. “They have made it clear they have no interest in dealing with us,” Berman said in an interview. He says all the talk was just an effort to lull the gallerists into acquiescence. “We are being hoodwinked.”

Berman says he believes even modest development at Bergamot will destroy the character of the place.

“Once you change it a little it’s going to come down like a house of cards,” he said.

It’s hard to disagree. Anyone who has been to Bergamot will recognize the unique ambience generated by the combination of loading-dock platforms and rusted-steel exteriors with pristine interiors displaying fine painting, photography and sculpture. It’s open, inviting and casual — even when the works on display bear price tags in the thousands of dollars.

But all of this was apparent when the city first opened this can of worms, and it’s a little tardy to start raising the flag in opposition. Berman acknowledges that this surge of defiance comes late in the process, but says that while the art dealers were slow to awaken, they are now prepared to fight.

“It took us some time, but now we’re being vocal. We’re being the squeaky wheel. This is a political battle, truth against power, and the City Council is going to have to take notice,” he says.

Blank, holder of the current, expiring lease and a gallerist himself, says he supports the gallery operators’ union and shares their fears for the future.

“It’s the City Council,” Blank said. “They’re going to blow Bergamot Station out of the water.”

For himself, Blank says he’s ready to stand aside. He feels compromised, as he also owns property adjacent to the city’s holdings at Bergamot, and so his motives are easily challenged. “I’ve had enough,” he said. “All the smoke and mirrors and lies. I’m on the sidelines on this.”

Blank can’t help but lament the threat to the vital arts complex that he fostered. But if he’s standing back, he’s going to be a most interested spectator.

“If [the galleries] want to keep the place they’re going to have to fight for it. But if they make enough noise they have a chance,” he said.

Like Berman, Blank believes the ultimate decision will be a political one.

“They’re going to have to change the City Council,” he said.