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CITY HALL — It took a list of neighborhood protections, a choir of supporters and almost $1.9 million in benefits, but Saint John’s Health Center is one step closer to getting a pass on a $25 million parking structure it promised to build over a decade ago.

The Planning Commission voted 5-1, with Commissioner Jennifer Kennedy against, to recommend that the City Council approve the amendment to the development agreement that the hospital signed in 1998 when it began the process of rebuilding after the 1994 Northridge earthquake.

The decision didn’t come easily, even for supporters.

“I’ve been bandying about this more than I should,” said Commissioner Ted Winterer. “It’s the mother of all parking variances.”

The amendment codifies an existing arrangement where the hospital leases out 450 spaces in the nearby Yahoo! Center and 95 spaces at Saint Anne’s Catholic Church, located a few blocks south on Colorado Avenue.

By the time the hospital’s first phase of construction is completed in 2012, it will supply 749 spaces spread out across its north and south campuses for a total of 1,528 parking spaces.

That’s a slightly higher number than would have been achieved with the 1998 agreement that requires a 442-space subterranean parking garage.

The amendment is a gamble on City Hall’s good will in many ways, however.

The hospital promises to deliver “functionally equivalent parking” to what would have been achieved if the parking garage was built, meaning not only the number of spaces, but also functionality and impact.

Should any of these things change, City Hall has the ability under the terms of the agreement to force Saint John’s to build the parking structure anyway, on top of the other commitments spelled out in the agreement.

That concept of “functionally equivalent” came into question almost immediately.

All patients and visitors that want to park at the hospital will have to go through a valet service, which Commissioner Hank Koning believed could not be the same if a car was being brought from an on-site garage versus an off-site lot.

Although he wasn’t pleased with the valet, Koning took comfort in an agreement with teeth.

“There are safeguards,” he said. “If something happens, alter it, or build the garage.”

The amendment was contingent on the City Council’s approval of the Yahoo! Center’s development agreement, which allowed the leasing that had been going on for the past decade.

“There is no more appropriate lessee than Saint John’s,” said land-use attorney Chris Harding, who was representing the hospital.

Not only does the Yahoo! Center have a large surplus of spaces, Saint John’s negotiators have created a contract that ensures the hospital will be the last parking space lessee kicked out in the event that actual tenants of the business park eventually need more spaces.

That leaves a cushion of 600, a margin of error on which the hospital is willing to bet the $25 million it would otherwise need to construct the subterranean parking garage.

Beyond the benefits of shared parking, which developers have embraced as a way to avoid paying for parking spaces, Harding offered yet another sweetener — consistency.

“This is not an experiment we’re proposing tonight,” he said. “We have leased these spaces for 10 years, and we have filed with the city interim parking plans since 2004 with the Yahoo! Center spaces prominent on them. Those plans have been approved.”

That’s not all planners got out of St. John’s during negotiations.

The hospital agreed to shoot for policies that get an average of 1.5 employees in each car during busiest times of day by November, as well as an employee specifically hired to make sure its plan to reduce its traffic impact goes into effect.

Saint John’s will provide 45 bike parking spaces, incentives to use public transportation and to telecommute when possible.

It will also set up a shuttle from the hospital to the new Expo Light Rail line within 180 days of the train operating in Santa Monica.

From a parking point of view, the hospital agreed to charge a reduced rate for the first hour, although commissioners pushed to make that a full 90 minutes.

Staff valued the benefits at $1,877,000 across 10 years, a major discount from the $25 million originally planned for the structure.

That’s a positive thing, said supporter Dr. Russ Kino, Saint John’s emergency room medical director.

“We’re here to ask you to allow us to spend that money to save lives rather than on a parking structure,” Kino said.

Two sticking points remain: A $200,000 contribution to the Memorial Park Expo Light Rail Station, and $35,000 for a study that would look at how local hospitals could coordinate traffic within their health care district.

With the commission’s approval, the matter will go before the City Council.

ashley@smdp.com