Artist Joyce Pensato works on a site-specific piece on  for her recent show 'I Killed Kenny' at the Santa Monica Museum of Art, which is located at the Bergamot Station Arts Center. (Photo by Daniel Archuleta)

Artist Joyce Pensato works on a site-specific piece on for her recent show ‘I Killed Kenny’ at the Santa Monica Museum of Art, which is located at the Bergamot Station Arts Center. (Photo by Daniel Archuleta)

CITY HALL —  The debate over appropriate heights and densities for Santa Monica has been heated, to put it mildly, but the Planning Commission has found at least one area its members believe could use a little more development — the Bergamot Station Arts Center.

Commissioners agreed to recommend an increase in the density allowed for privately-held land in the Bergamot Area Plan from a 1.0 floor area ratio to 1.5 floor area ratio in certain cases, adding flexibility craved by gallery owners who feared that the tight restrictions on development could stifle the arts center as it enters a new phase of its existence.

Floor area ratio, or FAR, is the ratio between the total floor area in a development and the amount of the parcel that a building uses.

Buildings in what planners are calling the “Conservation Art Center,” which lies on the southern end of the plan area, were held to a 1.0 FAR, whether they were city-owned or privately held property.

That caused heartburn for landowners and gallery owners, who were concerned that conservation, in this case, would lead to stagnation.

Many of the buildings in the area already hit that density level or slightly above, providing a major disincentive to landowners to redevelop their properties in any way, land use attorney Chris Harding said.

Harding attended the June 12 Planning Commission meeting representing Wayne Blank, the man credited with turning Bergamot Station into a bustling arts center known around the world for its concentration of unique galleries.

If the point of restricting development on private land was to preserve the existing arts center, the low-density development would not hit that mark, Harding said.

“I don‚Äôt understand the correlation between regulating density on one hand, and use on the other,” Harding told commissioners.

Gallery owners, and Blank himself, came out to speak on the issue, encouraging commissioners to trade greater density for a more robust, vibrant arts center to capture the crowds coming off of the future Exposition Light Rail line.

“We have galleries there, and we need things other than galleries to make the train station work,” said Craig Krull, owner of a gallery by the same name.

The station, as designed, is lacking in some basic amenities like bathrooms, and there is one cafe in the area currently, Krull noted. Additional development that could include new restaurants, book stores or even a small cinema would help attract and retain people disembarking from the train.

“We‚Äôre not restaurants, and there are other services and things that will be needed in the neighborhood that we can‚Äôt supply,” Krull said. “There needs to be flexibility as to what else the neighborhood might need and to limit it the way this proposal does is, I think, a little short sighted.”

While gallery owners feared the incoming light rail line early on in the process, particularly those who would be most impacted by the construction, they have been actively engaged in the planning process for the area, and see it as a way to potentially improve on the situation that exists at the site now.

The “sophisticated collector” that will come to Bergamot Station has certain expectations that the current set up cannot fulfill, said Peter Fetterman, of the Peter Fetterman Gallery.

“I think the entrepreneurs that are developing the new phase of our lives should be encouraged and not shackled,” Fetterman said.

Commissioners and city staff went along with the idea, and supported an increase of .5 FAR at more advanced stages of development that require oversight by planners or, in some cases, the Planning Commission and City Council.

That extra flexibility would be restricted to uses that support the arts.

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