Photo from smgov.net
Photo from smgov.net

After listening to about 100 speakers over four hours, the Santa Monica City Council picked a developer team to advance plans to revitalize the Bergamot Station Arts Center Tuesday night.

The City Council voted 5-to-1 against staff’s recommendation that 26Street TOD Partners be chosen as the developer team, instead choosing Worthe Real Estate Group to take the lead in bringing the six-acre parcel up to date for the arrival of the Expo light rail.

In making its decision, the Council cited the fact that the Worthe team’s proposal had more square footage for galleries and that the developer had already reached a labor peace agreement with UNITE HERE Local 11, the regional hospitality workers’ union, for a proposed boutique hotel on the property.

While Tuesday’s vote rounds out the end of the first phase of the project, the City Council reminded the public that it was just the beginning of a much longer discussion of plans to transform the Art Center, now a cluster of about three dozen commercial galleries and a surface parking lot, into a much more accessible regional arts hub.

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“This is not the end of the process; this is the beginning of the process,” said Councilmember Gleam Davis, adding that there would be plenty of opportunity for the public to discuss the finer points of whichever proposal the Council chose.

Despite the efforts of local anti-development activists to gather support to stop this project dead in its tracks, most of the public testimony Tuesday night favored some change to the Arts Center, though many were divided over whether Worthe or 26Street had the better vision.

“Bergamot Station will be the first stop for the Expo on the way into Santa Monica, and it is essential that, while preserving its history as an arts destination, we also allow it to become a vibrant, active, walkable example of all that Santa Monica has to offer,” Carl Hansen, director of Government Affairs for the Chamber of Commerce, told the Council Tuesday.

City staff estimated that once Expo opens to Santa Monica, about 3,000 people daily will use stop at 26th Street and Olympic Boulevard, at the northwestern corner of the Arts Center.

Proposals by both developer teams would preserve many of the original buildings, corrugated steel structures left over from the days when the parcel was used for light industry. The proposals also include revenue-generating uses, like a boutique hotel, in order to continue subsidizing the for-profit art galleries, the Museum and other nonprofit arts-related uses on the site. A bike center is promised in both proposals, as well.

“Everyone wants to maintain the galleries, but there is a cost,” said Councilmember Tony Vazquez, referring to the fact that the galleries all pay below-market rent, a City policy designed to promote the arts at the space.

Long-time arts advocate Bruria Finkel spoke in favor of the 26Street proposal, which she said would retain “the tenants galleries, which we have been subsidizing for almost 20 years, and create amenities for the community at large and the upkeep of Bergamot Art Center.”

26Street’s “proposal is complete with all the required details of a small Union hotel a Non Profit Museum and more parking then any other proposal,” she said. “Parking is required by the LUCE to be accommodated underground in building any structure.”

The Santa Monica Museum of Art had joined Finkel in voicing a preference for 26Street’s proposal. However, SMMoA officials said they were happy to see the project move forward.

“We are pleased that Santa Monica City Council has made the decision to enter into exclusive negotiations with a developer and move forward with the revitalization of Bergamot Station,” SMMoA Executive Director Elsa Longhauser told Santa Monica Next Wednesday.

“The Santa Monica Museum of Art is looking forward to working closely with the City, the Worthe Group, and our neighbors to transform Bergamot into a vibrant town square, a bright star in the cultural latticework formed by the coming Metro Expo line,” she said.

Another speaker was less specific about which project she supported. “I’m someone who doesn’t usually support change, but really, does Bergamot look like anything but a derelict?” she said.

Another speaker, a self-described car-free art supporter, decried the Center’s inaccessibility to pedestrians and bicyclists, adding, “Santa Monica is ready to urbanize.”

Currently, Bergamot Station is largely inaccessible except by car and the only open space currently on the property is a surface parking lot and a 900-square-foot patch of fenced-in grass.

Bill Turner, a gallery owner and the president of a recently-established tenants group, warned that any disruption to parking at the Arts Center would mean its demise, even though both proposals would add parking to the area.

While there was talk of using the nearby City Yards to build a new parking structure, City Manager Rod Gould cautioned that the complicated nature of the operations there could make construction there impractical.

Another opponent to the project claimed that Santa Monica was in danger of becoming another “botox beach city” if the Council went forward with upgrading the site.

Yet another claimed that any change to the site would make it impossible to drive there, though she made no mention of the people who might prefer to arrive by train.

At the end, the City Council voted to move ahead with process while acknowledging there would plenty of public input before a final project were approved. The Council also directed that an advisory board made up of stakeholders be convened to work with the developer.

Mayor Pam O’Connor wasn’t at Tuesday’s meeting. Only Councilmember Bob Holbrook voted against the motion because he supported 26Street’s proposal.

Though the discussion is ongoing, Tuesday’s decision put an end to a bumpy chapter in the project’s history.

At a community meeting in May, convened by City officials to discuss the project, speakers were met with a sometimes hostile crowd of anti-development activists, many of whom had conflated Bergamot Station’s redesign with the Bergamot Transit Village mixed-use project that had been proposed across the street.

The Santa Monica Museum of Art, which sits on a part of the property that is privately owned, saw its rent tripled after it backed 26Street’s proposal. Wayne Blank, who owned the land on which the Museum sits, had been a part of the Worthe team.

Blank is currently in the process of selling his land to the 26Street team, according to testimony at the City Council Tuesday.