Since the mid-2000’s Santa Monica’s Bergamot Station Arts Center has been a lightning rod for debate about what the future of the city looks like and who decides. With post-recession rents skyrocketing and the impending arrival of the Expo light rail line in 2016, the city, which owns most of the land on which the center’s galleries sit, has been eager to redevelop the creative zone, which includes the hangar that is home to the Santa Monica Museum of Art.
The project’s official RFQ, released in 2012, asked for designs that would “protect and enhance the area’s arts and creative uses” while bringing a greater mix to serve the anticipated influx of over 3,000 light rail riders per day.
On September 9, after five hours of deliberation and more than one hundred speakers, the Santa Monica City Council selected a redevelopment scheme by Frederick Fisher and Partners. Fisher was the architect for the original Bergamot Station & Galleries project in 1994 after American Appliance had decamped from the sprawling industrial complex.
Courtesy Frederick Fisher and Partners
Fisher’s proposal begins with the Station’s original DNA, retaining the industrial shed vernacular for most of the new buildings. The new museum, for example, is a playful interpretation of the pre-fab shed typology, lifted up and placed on a glass box for its entry lobby.
The designs show a restraint that respects the scale of the original, making liberal use of corrugated metal and perforated metal screens. There is also a strong emphasis on public space and view corridors, linking building circulation that was pulled to the exterior with landscaped courtyards. Bergamot is seen as a gateway, making connections to the new Expo light rail stop and the surrounding community while holding onto its character as an eclectic enclave.
Under the developer umbrella of Bergamot Station Ltd/Worthe Real Estate, Fisher’s design team includes the landscape architecture firm Office of James Burnett, Community Arts Resources, which is known for art-centered planning, and SBE Hotel Group.
Courtesy Rios Clementi Hale
Two other development teams had been vying for the opportunity to transform Bergamot: 26Street TOD Partners/The Lionstone Group with Rios Clementi Hale Studios and Rethink/KOR Group with Michael Maltzen Architecture and David Hertz Architects.
Rios Clementi Hale’s approach utilized a Butler building system, so new buildings would maintain a low-slung profile and complement the local vernacular. They proposed to reuse elements from dismantled buildings in the new construction, all tied together by a monolithic, industrial-style folding roof. For the Rethink/KOR Group proposal, David Hertz and Michael Maltzan formed a “design collaborative”, which also included Hornberger + Worstell, Katherine Spitz Associates for landscape, and John Bela’s Rebar Group known for “user-generated urbanism.” Their concept kept all the original buildings—modifying only one—and enhanced the campus-nature of the area with new landscape elements and amenities.
Despite the choice of Fisher, who is known for his sensitive reuse work, some surrounding residents and gallery owners are not so convinced. They see the overall plans for Bergamot Station as a way to drive out creative uses and build another Watergarden, a self-contained office complex locals cite as something they do not want again. In May, a citizen-launched referendum spurred city council to reject the mixed-use Hines/Gensler Bergamot Transit Village, just north of the Bergamot Arts Center area.
But with the arts district’s smaller, less-dense scope, things might be looking brighter for Bergamot Station. All the competing teams put forth visions that seemed to reinforce the unique village-like character of the place while adding architectural adventurousness that connects with the arts crowd.
“We know that Bergamot Station is a unique project for Santa Monica and that the ultimate shape for it will come from collaboration and engagement with all stakeholders. We embrace this,” said Fisher.