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A former Red Line Trolley stop and water heater manufacturing facility, Bergamot Station has become a center for the arts in Los Angeles, but some are questioning whether or not it should be turned into a maintenance yard for light rail. (photo by Brandon Wise)

MICHIGAN AVE. — There’s a row of old warehouses and hangars tucked away in the heart of the industrial district where transit officials recently considered locating a light rail maintenance yard, fulfilling a destiny placed upon it two decades ago.

The only problem is the 9.5 acre piece of land known as Bergamot Station is today considered one of Southern California’s premier art and cultural centers, housing more than 30 galleries and the Santa Monica Museum of Art.

The location of the maintenance yard for the Exposition Light Rail has been a contentious topic between residents of the Pico Neighborhood, who have long decried the “environmental injustice” of living near the I-10 Freeway and the City Yards, and transit officials who propose constructing a 24-hour maintenance facility in their neck of the woods.

While the Exposition Construction Authority has written off Bergamot as a possible location for the yard, opting instead for the Verizon site on Exposition Boulevard to the chagrin of nearby residents, the terms under which City Hall acquired the station in 1989 show it was intended to one day house such a facility.

The minutes from the City Council meeting on Aug. 22, 1989 state that elected officials authorized the $17.3 million purchase of Bergamot from the Southern Pacific Transportation Company “to be used as a rail car storage and light maintenance yard.” The council also in the same meeting borrowed $6.9 million from the Los Angeles County Transportation Commission — which in 1993 merged with the Southern California Rapid Transit District to form the MTA — toward the purchase of the station.

Expo officials examined more than 40 sites from Downtown Los Angeles to Santa Monica where the line is proposed to terminate, assessing properties such as Bergamot but opting against the station partly because of its identity as a cultural resource, said Monica Born, the project director for Expo Phase II. Bergamot is being proposed as one of the stops for the Expo line.

“Because it has a lot of art galleries and the Santa Monica Museum of Art, we thought it as a place where we shouldn’t pursue and the city staff that we met with didn’t disagree,” Born said.

Born said she was unaware the station was acquired to one day have a light rail maintenance yard but knew it was purchased with transit funds.

The question remains, should Bergamot be moved to make way for a maintenance yard, sparing residents from further impacts, or is it too valuable to Santa Monica to disrupt?

Dating back to 1875, Bergamot was once a stop for the Red Line trolley that ran from Los Angeles to the Santa Monica Pier. After the trolley cars ceased in 1953, the station began housing several industrial uses, from a celery-packing operation to an ice-making plant and later a water heater manufacturer.

The Bergamot station Web site states that City Hall purchased the once-abandoned property “with plans for it to once again serve as an eventual transit stop, this time for a proposed light rail line running from Los Angeles to Santa Monica.”

Forced to postpone those dreams, City Hall approached Wayne Blank, the co-owner of Shoshana Wayne Gallery, about turning the station into an artistic resource. Bergamot reopened in its current incarnation on Sept. 17, 1994.

Seeing potential

Blank, an art dealer, wanted to expand his operation and thought a vacant building at Bergamot would be a suitable home. The only thing was City Hall wouldn’t lease him the building. City officials said he had to take the whole property, Blank said.

On top of that, the lease would only be month to month, a condition set forth by City Hall because the property was purchased with transit funds, requiring any interim use be such that rail-related purposes could be introduced readily.

“It was a big risk, but we did it,” Blank said.

In 2004 the rent Blank had to pay City Hall was $42,350 a month. The lease includes a “right to terminate” notice of one year, according to a city staff report.

The chances of that notice being issued are slim, Blank said, because Bergamot’s position in the art world has changed dramatically.

Now it is hard for those familiar with Bergamot to imagine Santa Monica without it.

“Bergamot Station has become a center for the arts for not only Santa Monica, but for the Westside,” Blank said. “It is definitely a cultural jewel for Santa Monica.”

It is estimated that 700,000 people visit Bergamot every year.

“It’s a gathering place,” Blank said. “It has become an internationally-recognized cultural hub.”

Blank always knew there was a possibility of Bergamot being turned into a maintenance yard. After all, it is located near the city’s Waste Transfer Station and the I-10 Freeway, not the most desirable piece of real estate for housing development. It’s future seemed set. Either it was to be a rail yard or an art center.

To ensure Bergamot’s future, Blank purchased land surrounding it. Blank and his wife also own the building which houses SMMOA.

His vision for the area is to expand on Bergamot by creating a light rail station there and a 150-room hotel that would be moderately priced. This would breathe life into the area, which is home to large commercial buildings and old factories.

“This would support a lot of businesses along Olympic Boulevard,” Blank said. “Bergamot has a huge economic impact on all the businesses. We have visitors who eat at all the restaurants and [the galleries] pay business license taxes that helps the city to support services.”

Some Bergamot tenants expressed excitement for having the rail line come to the station in a few years. Some were less enthused about the idea of being booted out or sharing the space with a maintenance yard.

“If Bergamot Station were to be turned into a light rail yard, (that) would be absolutely devastating for the arts on the Westside of Los Angeles,” Richard Heller, who owns Richard Heller Gallery, said. “I am absolutely against such a move.”

Samuel Freeman, who owns Samuel Freeman Gallery, said he believes that re-designating the station for maintenance use would be “a shame.”

“We’ll find a new home,” he said. “We’re like moths, we’ll find a new crevice.”

Residents in the Pico Neighborhood said they agree that a location other than Verizon and Bergamot should be seriously explored, recognizing the important role that Bergamot has grown to fill in the cultural life of the city.

But if it came down to either sites, many residents in the impacted area around Exposition Boulevard and Stewart Street concur that a maintenance yard would better left further away from homes.

“To take a proposed new community and build it at the expense of an existing beautiful community that includes very low-income people, Latino, African-American families … Japanese-American residents who have been here since their return from internment camps and destroy that community with very loud noises day and night just seems inappropriate,” said Michael Tarbet, who lives about a block away from the Verizon site.

Tarbet added that residents would prefer placing the maintenance yard in Los Angeles but believes the composition of votes on the Metropolitan Transportation Authority board, which only has one representative from Santa Monica — Mayor Pro Tem Pam O’Connor — would not work in their favor.

He said that a compromise could be to locate the maintenance facility underneath Bergamot Station or move the galleries to either the Verizon site or Santa Monica Airport where there is a growing artist community.

Mayor Ken Genser said he hopes an alternate site can be found that spares both the Pico Neighborhood and Bergamot. He believes more studies need to be done to see if a compromise can be made or if the maintenance yard could be located under ground.

“It’s not a simple question of this site verses that site,” said Genser, who was a council member when Bergamot was purchased. “I think there are still too many questions. We need to study our options.”

Genser admits that Blank turned Begamot “into something nobody expected it to be.”

All for naught

Bergamot may not even be right for the maintenance yard given its size.

During a council meeting last week, Expo officials presented a graphic in which they superimposed the yard’s proposed configuration at the Verizon site onto an image of Bergamot, showing there would be additional property impacts beyond the station, requiring that the parcel to the east and part of the City Yards be acquired.

To ensure Bergamot’s future, Blank purchased land surrounding it. Blank and his wife also own the building which houses SMMOA.

The facility would be used to wash and maintain cars and test horns. Any possible impacts will be mitigated through measures that could include a sound wall, Born said. The proposed site had to meet several requirements, including being located on land that is about six to 10 acres and adjacent to the main line, provide enough parking for employees, ideally in an industrial area away from homes and have a reasonable shape that could accommodate the tracks.

Many residents who spoke against the maintenance facility called the proposal “environmental injustice.” They also raised concerns about how it would impact businesses located nearby, such as IMAX, or the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, which signed a long-term lease to be located at the Lantana complex.

“With the I-10 Freeway going on one side and the Lantana project expanded … some people are tired, others are angry,” said Robin Roy, who lives on Delaware Avenue. “Santa Monica should be ashamed of treating the neighborhood with long-standing families so callously.

“Although we are not families living on Montana, we deserve to be respected and we vote.”

O’Connor, who sits on the Expo board along with county supervisors, L.A. councilmembers and a representative from Culver City, said she has not had discussions with her colleagues about the maintenance yard. Expo staff is still working on an environmental impact report and will present findings at a later date.

She is opposed to relocating Bergamot, saying that it is what makes the Expo line relevant for that area. Along with the Water Garden and the Yahoo Center, Bergamot helps make the neighborhood what it is, which is a true destination.

“With anything, we have to look at the pluses and minuses,” she said. “We always strive for the least impact and be the best neighbor possible. But often, impacts cannot be avoided.”

Many of her colleagues on the board have had to deal with impacts from other projects and O’Connor doesn’t believe they will gladly accept a rail yard in their districts.

“Frankly, you have people who will say, ‘Fine, if you don’t want to build light rail, then stop it in Culver City and give us the money,’” O’Connor said. “With transit, you want to have stops at destinations. With Bergamot, the destination is already there.”

<i>Editor in Chief Kevin Herrera and intern Ashley Archibald contributed to this report.<i/>

melodyh@smdp.com

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