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Santa Monica City Council Approves Hotel for Bergamot Station Arts Center
By Niki Cervantes
June 15, 2017 -- The Santa Monica City Council Tuesday approved a major redevelopment plan for the five-acre Bergamot Station Arts Center that includes a controversial seven-story hotel to anchor the Expo-adjacent project.
The council voted 5 to 1 to give the go-ahead to the 220,000-square-foot development and its 120-room “art-centric boutique” hotel on the site’s western edge.
As it now stands, the plan by the Worthe Group also preserves four of the five existing buildings on the site -- which is City-owned -- and adds six buildings.
One of the new buildings would eventually house a new art museum.
Most of the remaining space is earmarked for gallery, nonprofit and cultural uses, “creative” office space and a restaurant/café. Instead of surface parking, the project includes a shared City Yards parking structure.
Council Member Sue Himmelrich cast the lone dissenting vote, saying she objected to green-lighting the hotel without allowing for more “flexibility.”
Mostly, though, the evening featured combating notions of the right future for Bergamot, which has evolved over the last quarter of a century from a district for light industry into an arts enclave known for its Santa Monica-esque funky yet chic vibe.
Supporters of the Worthe proposal say it takes pains to protect the current tenants by ensuring rents won’t increase beyond inflation in the next three years. They note it is less invasive than the revitalization proposals the City first received, and rejected in favor of working with Worthe.
“We are deeply committed to the galleries there,” said Mayor Ted Winterer.
Council Member Tony Vazquez, who also voted for the proposal, sounded a far less sympathetic note.
Bergamot, he said, could not have survived to begin with had the City not agreed to subsidize the tenants.
Leases expire on December 31 for the existing tenants, which include 27 galleries, artists, a theater group and a restaurant.
“We created a monster,” Vazquez said. “At some point, the rents are going to have to go up.”
“Now we have a chance to open it up,” he said of the proposal’s plans for new blood at Bergamot. “Some folks are going to be forced out.”
Still, he said Worthe’s proposal earmarks space for nonprofits –- another field shut out of many locations because of high rents.
About 40 speakers testified at the meeting. At one point, opponents in the audience began shouting “shut up” as Council Member Gleam Davis called the hotel a “symbol of social justice.”
“I listened to you, now you listen to me,” Davis shot back.
Davis characterized Bergamot as a place that had failed to embrace those who aren’t already involved in the arts world or who can’t afford to write six-figure checks to buy gallery pieces.
Such exclusivity, she said, is not compatible with publicly-owned uses. She noted Bergamot is near the Pico District -- a financially hard-pressed neighborhood with a large Hispanic population -- and “should be a place everyone can afford."
“That doesn’t necessarily mean you buy a $100,000 piece of art work, (but) where on a Saturday afternoon you can walk over, get a sandwich and know there is something fun for the family to do, whether it’s arts and crafts for the children, music being played by the Dudamel Orchestra or a play, perhaps, from our own Ruskin Group,” Davis said.
The heckling started when she characterized the proposed Bergamot hotel as “social justice.”
“It will create good jobs” that will improve lives, she said, and also provide revenue for the money-troubled municipal bus system used by riders “who can’t afford three cars in the garage.”
There was little council discussion of an 11th-hour alternative from gallery owners proposing the formation of a nonprofit organization to shape Bergamot’s future
The Gallery Plan sought to keep the current management team intact and extend the current leases -- all of which expire December 31.
Also approved Tuesday by the council was granting Worthe status as the master leaseholder, since tenants at the center sublease.
The City purchased the five acres in 1989 using transit funds, and with a future of expanded public transit in mind. Commercial development on the site will help subsidize the City's Big Blue Bus system, which has been losing riders for years.
Worthe’s plan includes much of what was recommended by the Bergamot Advisory Committee -- with the exception of the hotel.
Six of the committee's 11 members worried a hotel would over-shadow the site and badly damage business during construction.
In addition, the council said Tuesday it would consider ways of adding affordable housing, although the location is not zoned for such use. Vazquez suggested looking into live/work spaces.
The council also asked City officials to step up finding a tenant for the proposed museum. The Santa Monica Museum moved out of its Bergamot site two years ago, driven out by skyrocketing rents ("Santa Monica Museum of Art Moving to Century City," April 16, 2015).
It has since remade its identity and relocated to Downtown Los Angeles, becoming one of number of cultural gems that have exited the city ("Santa Monica Museum of Art Finds New Home in Downtown LA," May 10, 2016).
Winterer asked that the “ArtBox” concept proposed in the Gallery Plan be looked at more closely and possibly incorporated into the Worthe plan.
Winterer, Vazquez, Davis and Council Member Terry O’Day voted in favor of the Worthe plan. Council Member Pam O’Connor was absent.
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