Contemporary art Controversies USA

Galleries’ survival threatened by railway expansion plans

Uncertainty surrounds future of Santa Monica arts centre

Under threat: a crowd queues outside a gallery in the Bergamot Station complex

The expansion of the new Exposition Light Rail (Expo) connecting downtown Los Angeles to Santa Monica means major changes to the Bergamot Station Arts Center, a 7.4-acre complex that houses 35 galleries in several metal-clad industrial buildings. An 18-year-old art space is being threatened with destruction and gallery owners worry they could be pushed out by rising rents when the new railway stop opens in 2015.

Track 16, a 12,000 sq. ft art space, is due to be torn down to make way for a platform as early as August. “We’re being put out of business basically,” says the owner Tom Patchett, who co-funded the development of the Bergamot Station complex in 1994. He feels that the city has done little to ensure the gallery’s continued operation. “We’re being kicked out because they need this property, but we’re not being relocated within a similar community. If we go elsewhere, we can’t do what we’re doing now.”

The additional rail stop is projected to bring in about 3,500 people to Bergamot Station every day. The Santa Monica city council has given preliminary approval to a plan that would add, among other things, an 88-room hotel and a “signature” building to house the Santa Monica Museum of Art (SMMoA). The $54m plan adds about 167,000 sq. ft for existing and new building. The city hopes to increase the $600,000 it receives from existing leases on the property and is searching for a developer.

The plan has been met either with cautious optimism or outright opposition from gallery owners, who have taken part in seven community meetings over the past year. “This plan is only a suggestion. We have no idea what we’re going to be getting,” says Carol Kleinman, the co-owner of TAG Gallery, who worries that galleries will be replaced by higher-paying commercial tenants.

“With all the money going to capital improvements, it’s hard to believe there won’t be an increase in rent. But how much? [The city] hasn’t mentioned anything at all,” says the gallery owner Susan Schomburg. Santa Monica city commercial rents are $2.50 per sq. ft on average, but the galleries only pay about half of the market rates, says Wayne Blank, the Bergamot Station co-developer and property manager.

The city planner Peter James stresses that the concept is flexible. “It’s not a final plan at all,” he says, and adds that the city hopes that someone who understands the arts scene “will look at this as a starting point and make it even better”. Changes are likely to occur after 2016.

Craig Krull, a gallery owner, is among the more supportive voices. “As of now, things are looking pretty good,” he says. “The current plan is a lot less intensely developed than some of the previous suggestions. Plus, the community has been very supportive. They’ve said they wanted to keep Bergamot Station true to what it is now.”

In the meantime, gallery owners have to contend with disruptions caused by the construction of the railway platform. Most buildings are made of metal and have no air-conditioning, so it will be a challenge to keep the noise and air-borne debris at bay. Expo has given no formal notice of when construction will start.

In a statement to The Art Newspaper, Glenda Silva, an Expo spokeswoman, says that “all tenants should be able to function normally without any direct impact from construction”, with various measures in place to ensure smooth operations. In addition, the city has brought in their economic development team and small business experts to advise the galleries.

Most galleries are adopting a wait-and-see approach, wary of the city’s open-ended plans. “We know this isn’t our property, we leased it,” says Kleinman. “At the same time, we really would like to see Bergamot Station as the cultural icon it is. It would be awful for that to go away.”

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