Bergamot blowout: How the Expo Line complicates, divides, a busy corner of Santa Monica

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Bergamot now (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

What the heck is going on over at Santa Monica’s Bergamot Station arts complex? Since a huge parcel on the arts community’s western edge was seized by eminent domain to make way for the coming Expo line, nothing concrete just yet. However, the project has stirred up a whole lot of dissent and fear that’s divided the community. And, could potentially drive out one of Bergamot’s key tenants, the Santa Monica Museum of Art.

If you’ve ever visited this one-time-train-depot-turned-appliance-factory-turned-arts-enclave you’ve probably received an urgent message or three over the last week about its fate, asking you to sign a petition to help save the place from “serious jeopardy.”  Other art lovers have weighed in as well.

The concern, for some, is that proposed redevelopment plans solicited by the city will transform Bergamot into a high-rent, arts-unfriendly shopping mall. There are questions about what kind of new tenants will be allowed in and exactly where to locate a much-needed parking garage. (The city says it’s committed to the crop of gallerists who currently inhabit the place.)

Sorting through the maze-like cast of characters and overlapping interests here requires a scorecard. While the city of Santa Monica owns the bulk of the former train depot, for 20 years it has leased its operation and maintenance to a private citizen, Wayne Blank. Blank not only owns one of the Bergamot galleries, but an adjacent parcel of land on which sits, among other tenants, the Santa Monica Museum of Art.

What Bergamot could look like, as rendered by developer (and part-owner) 26th Street TOD

Until recently, Blank had also been vying to be one of the re-developers of Bergamot, as has another private group that owns Bergamot-adjacent property, 26th Street TOD.  Blank lost the bid to them.

And that’s where things get even more complicated–and ugly. Because of the Museum’s support of the rival plan, which made provisions to house it, a fight has erupted between its leadership and Blank. As Mike Boehm chronicled in the LA Times on Monday, Blank is now tripling the Museum’s rent for “disruptive and unneighborly” behavior. The headline in the citizen journalism site, Santa Monica Next, cuts to the chase: “Nonprofit art museum voices opinion, building owner raises rent.”

A month or so ago, City Council scuttled a planned transit village across the street that might have helped absorb some of the traffic surge that’s expected once the train rumbles in in a year or so. Activists were concerned that it would, in fact, create too much additional traffic. Could this new petition force City Council to rethink the plan it accepted for Bergamot?  Stay tuned.

The only thing that seems certain right now is that the Expo Line will rumble alongside Bergamot in a year or so, bringing with it more people, and traffic. What happens on this busy corner of Santa Monica is, as one stakeholder told me, “The most important decision to be made in Santa Monica in the last 50 years.”