Wayne Blank doesn’t pull punches when it comes to the City and plans to develop the art gallery complex Bergamot Station.
“The City has been playing god over everybody here for a few years now,” Blank said from his business, Shoshana Wayne Gallery. “They haven’t made up their mind. They don’t have a real plan. It’s just hanging.”
Blank is essentially breaking away from a partnership with Santa Monica that lasted more than two decades. Up until last month, Blank owned about two acres of Bergamot Station and served as landlord for the rest. On Dec. 20, he sold his portion to real estate investment firm RedCar Properties for $35 million dollars.
As far as the rest of the galleries on the City-owned side, Blank’s lease is up at the end of the year. He says he’ll only remain if things stay the same and his lease gets renewed, but the status quo has been on the precipice of change for years.
“They had the best art community going of any place in the United States,” Blank said. “This was a pretty solid community that lasted for 24 years until the City started getting involved. In the end, the City can’t get out of it’s own way.”
Santa Monica purchased 5.6 acres of Bergamot Station in 1989 with transit funds. The idea was that the site could provide a source of revenue for the Big Blue Bus (BBB). A few years later, Blank helped open Bergamot Station as an art mecca for collectors and creative workers. With Blank as a landlord and partner, about 30 small, creative businesses flourished. Gallery owners benefited from large, formerly industrial spaces and relatively low rents.
Blank maintains that he never raised rents on tenants over the past two decades nor did he pass longer higher costs he incurred as a landlord.
But with light rail on the way, the City’s plans for the site grew. A 2012 staff report established three goals for Bergamot Station: support the arts, deliver a transit-oriented development, and maximize revenue for BBB.
With a directive to maximize revenue and take full advantage of the coming Expo Line, plans were initially quite expansive. They included plans for galleries, apartments, office space, restaurants and even a hotel. The gallery owners and Blank came out against the plans, arguing the prolonged construction and mixed-use development was a death sentence for the arts community.
Since 2014, the City has significantly scaled back the plans but the damage has been done. Blank is essentially washing his hands of the community, beginning with the sale of his 2 acres of property.
Since the deed changed hands, tenants have already seen their rents nearly double as the new owner passed along higher property taxes to the gallery owners. Many of the tenants rent on a monthly basis and it’s hard for them see why it would make sense to stay. The city manager’s office has been trying to set up a meeting with the new owner to discuss helping the creative businesses remain.
The City Council has always maintained they want to support the current gallery owners and help them survive through construction and then eventually subsidize their rents.
When asked what the Council can do to help the gallery owners who are now facing higher rates, Councilmember Kevin McKeown suggested to the Daily Press “someone might write a Blank check.”
Wayne Blank says he has plenty of those lying around, but they’ll most likely be used to relocate his own gallery if and when it leaves Bergamot Station.
“I’m starting to look around and maybe I’ll write a Blank check but it won’t be in Santa Monica, that’s for sure,” Blank said. “I think the city has treated people very shabbily.”