CITY HALL — After four hours of public comment, City Council voted quickly to work with Jeff Worthe Real Estate Group on a proposed development at the Bergamot Station Arts Center.
A 5 to 1 vote, with dissent from Councilmember Bob Holbrook, allows Worthe’s group alone to work with City Hall in shaping a project that could add a hotel and creative office space to the art complex.
Mayor Pam O’Connor was absent.
City Hall staff and the Santa Monica Arts Commission suggested that council work with a different developer: 26Street TOD.
More than 100 residents with a diverse range of opinions came out to speak about the project. The three most common suggestions from the public included scrapping the project altogether, selection of 26Street TOD, and selection of Worthe’s group.
The Bergamot land served as a railroad station from 1875 through the 1950s. After the station closed it was a manufacturing site. Santa Monica officials bought the land in the late 1980s and Bergamot Station opened as an art center in 1994. Over the years it grew into an arts haven. It is home to the Santa Monica Museum of Art.
Council was tasked with choosing one of the three developers to revamp the space. All proposals, per request from City Hall, included a multi-story hotel and at least 30,000 square feet of creative office space.
Worthe’s group, which council selected, includes 44,000 square feet of creative office space and a seven-story, 120-room hotel.
In Worthe’s favor was a signed a labor agreement with the hospitality union, Unite Here! Local 11. The 26Street TOD failed to finalize an agreement with the union. Negotiations were progressing, union representatives said, but a single term slowed the completion.
Several members of council listed Worthe’s labor agreement as a key reason for their support of his proposal.
Numerous gallerists and residents opposed to development questioned the need to develop the land.
One answer, given by city officials and members of council, is that revenues from the land are set-aside for the Big Blue Bus. Currently BBB collects $528,000 per year from the lease, which expires in 2018. If the land is developed, they said, more revenue could be generated for BBB.
“I would have to guess that a majority of the people we heard from expressed some concern that what is proposed so far may be too much,” said Councilmember Kevin McKeown. “And yet I don’t feel we need to kill the process as some people suggested. I actually think that public process is the answer.”
McKeown suggested that a working group, made up of residents and artists, be formed to guide Worthe in its development process.
Much of Bergamot Station Art Center is on public land but 26Street TOD was, according to council members, in the process of acquiring another portion of the art center property. The group already owns an adjacent piece of land.
Councilmember Gleam Davis called these pieces of land the “800 pound gorilla in the room.”
“I’ll be honest,” she said, “and this may sound odd, but that troubles me that they have the adjacent land.”
The other plots of land, she said, don’t have the same strict zoning requirements that would be in place for the public portion of the land.
“What I’m afraid is what we’ll end up doing is trying to cram in all this stuff,” Davis said, “And saying, ‘well, we can’t put it on the city land (because of the strict zoning requirements) but we can put it right next door.'”
Holbrook called this view “a mistake.”
“I have problems supporting the Worthe group,” he said before casting his dissenting vote, “primarily because the 26Street group owns one of the pieces that is vital to this project and they are escrowing the other so it’s conceivable that the only property that could be developed, unless Mr. Worthe can buy all those other properties from these people, is the city land only. I think the project is going to be pretty crummy is that’s all there is to it.”
Council’s selection of Worthe is not a final approval of the project. Worthe will now go through the development agreement process, making pitches to, among other city entities, the Planning Commission and the council.