A rendering of the Cal Arts Media Lab planned for Bergamot Station

A rendering of the Cal Arts Media Lab planned for Bergamot Station

A $92-million development plan calls for adding office space, restaurants and a hotel to the arts center

By Joe Piasecki

Call it an extreme arts center makeover.

With the arrival of the Expo light rail line connecting Santa Monica to downtown Los Angeles, Bergamot Station once again becomes a public transit stop as early next year — meaning big changes for the Santa Monica Museum of Art and the dozens of galleries housed in the complex.

On Tuesday the Santa Monica City Council is expected to consider entering exclusive negotiations for a $92-million redevelopment effort that would bring in additional cafés and bars, a boutique hotel and some 40,000 square feet of creative office space.

Also part of the pitch by development group 26thStreet TOD Partners: a brand new home for the museum that, at 20,000 square feet, would about double its size; a Cal Arts-run digital media center producing public programs in cooperation with KCRW; and a UCLA think tank headed by arts professor and opera director Peter Sellars.

The plan calls for preserving much of the existing steel warehouse buildings that morphed into galleries after Southern Pacific Railroad sold the 5.6-acre parcel to the city three decades ago, with $2.4 million in annual commercial lease revenue partially subsidizing rents for nonprofit galleries at 65% below market rate (or 40% for commercial galleries).

The Santa Monica Arts Commission voted 4-3 to support negotiations with 26thStreet at an Aug. 23 meeting that drew some 200 people.

“The proposal is really beautiful, keeping that warehouse look and feel,” said commission member Linda Jassim. “We absolutely want the galleries to stay. They’re going to get subsidized rent.”

Most of the 40-plus galleries at Bergamot Station, however, worry that they won’t survive the transition. An online petition against city redevelopment plans circulated by the Bergamot Station Gallery Cultural Association, which represents most of the galleries, has received more than 11,000 digital signatures.

The first issue is parking. Not only could construction of underground lots displace gallery operations for months at a time, but it also remains unclear how parking access would be shared among existing businesses, new businesses and Expo Line commuters. Drawing park-and-ride traffic is a thorny subject for homeowners near Bergamot, too.

Another uncertainty: Not all of the current Bergamot Station Arts Center is owned by the city. About 1.3 acres adjacent to Michigan Avenue, including the current home of the Santa Monica Museum of Art, sits on a privately-owned portion of land that isn’t part of the redevelopment proposal.

The owner of that land — Wayne Blank, who pioneered the art center concept at Bergamot — came out against the redevelopment process in May after the city passed on a proposal in which he was involved.

Blank has kept his plans for the parcel close to the vest. Asked by commission chair Robert Michael Myers to address a rumor that he was negotiating a sale to the 26thStreet team, Blank refused to respond.

Galleries, meanwhile, also worry they’ll eventually be pushed out of Bergamot by an influx of commercial uses.

Redevelopment “threatens the heart and soul of Bergamot Station as we know it,” the galleries association petition reads. “We do not want another shopping mall to replace this unique and historic complex.”

Can art and commerce coexist peacefully, one in support of the other?

It’s a dream that Abby Sher, founder of the Santa Monica Museum of Art (though no longer affiliated), has tried to capture before.

Sher launched the museum in the mid-1980s as a cultural cornerstone for Edgemar, her redevelopment of a former food processing warehouse on Main Street that included a commercial and office complex designed by architect Frank Gehry. Sher’s idea was that each use would be a draw for the other.

“My mother was an artist and my father was a shopping center developer, and I thought this was an opportunity to put those two worlds together — that when you’re buying an ice cream cone the person selling it would ask whether you’d seen the latest exhibition. To me they were interdependent,” Sher said.

The economics of a for-profit developer subsidizing the museum alongside discounted rents for other arts tenants didn’t pencil out, however, so the museum moved to Bergamot.

“The whole idea was that people who were not of the arts world would kind of stumble on the museum,” she said. “At Bergamot, unless you were someone who already participated in the arts, you wouldn’t find your way there.”

In the redevelopment proposal — and its public subsidy guarantees — Sher sees a more sustainable model for her synergistic vision. And as she sees it, there really isn’t an alternative.

“Bergamot cannot stay as it is. The train is coming, and it affords so many possibilities for an exciting future that is, as of yet, unimagined,” Sher said.