CITY HALL — After four years of glacial progress through public process, Saint John’s Health Center on Tuesday won its freedom from the expectation that it build a multi-million dollar parking garage.

The City Council voted 5-0 to remove that requirement, which was part of a 1998 development agreement that the hospital signed so that it could rebuild after its campus was damaged in the 1994 Northridge earthquake.

Instead of the parking structure, the hospital proposed to secure 1,528 spaces of on- and off-site parking, 450 of which are located at the Yahoo! Center on Colorado Avenue, according to city planner Roxanne Tanemori.

Visitors, patients and some physicians would get out of their cars at a front entry plaza, which will be constructed under the agreement, and hand their keys to a valet who would then take the cars to spaces either on the north or south campuses of the hospital.

There are 268 spaces reserved for visitors and patients under the plan.

That, Tanemori said, would provide parking which was “functionally equivalent” to the previously agreed upon 442-space subterranean parking garage.

That phrase, “functionally equivalent parking,” was the crux of Tuesday’s conversation, and the foundation upon which council members had to make their decision to grant Saint John’s its concession, or force it to build the parking garage.

In addition to the spaces, staff negotiated extra benefits for the neighborhood and City Hall to sweeten the deal, including more stringent requirements on traffic reduction, a reduced parking rate for the first 90 minutes of a visit, more bike racks and a shuttle to the Exposition Light Rail line when it arrives in 2015.

The hospital will also give $100,000 for light rail station improvements, and $35,000 to fund a study of transportation management in the area.

Originally, staff had asked for a $200,000 contribution for the station, and Saint John’s had argued to fund only half of the study.

In all, the agreement provides $1,787,000 in benefits, some of those ongoing, Tanemori said.

The agreement also puts more power in the hands of city officials, who can order Saint John’s to build the parking structure if it loses enough parking from its off-site leases that it can’t provide parking for its staff, visitors and patients.

Chris Harding, the land-use attorney representing Saint John’s, told council members that the deal they would get under the amendment was better than what they had before, even without the parking structure.

It would include greater compliance with the council-approved Land Use and Circulation Element, or LUCE, which says that sharing parking is superior to building it, and reducing the impact of traffic on city streets is an important benefit, Harding said.

Detractors of the project asserted that the development agreement, which gets concessions beyond the zoning code and is the linchpin of the LUCE, is “not worth the paper it’s written on when the city ignores them or, without community input, changes them.”

They also argued that a valet could never equate to a large parking garage, either for Saint John’s patients or its workers.

Liz Baker Wade, a nurse organizer at the hospital, called the analysis done by city staff “sophisticated work.”

“But,” she said, “I fail to see how valets shuffling cars through the neighborhood is the same as on-site parking.”

The majority of speakers during the night were employees of Saint John’s, who spoke highly of the hospital and its track record within the community.

Moderate voices, like that of Louisa Fish, who has served on the Senior Commission, cautiously approved of the adherence to LUCE guidelines, but warned the council to make sure the amendment was followed to the letter.

“The follow up must be meticulous, records kept and no more possibilities of broken agreements,” Fish said.

Mayor Pro Tempore Gleam Davis acknowledged that City Hall has not always been the best steward of its development agreements, but that Saint John’s saintliness wasn’t the topic at hand.

“What we have before us is a land use matter,” she said.

And as a land use matter, Harding’s LUCE-related argument ruled the night.

“It does reflect the best goals we have in the LUCE,” said Mayor Richard Bloom. “That is the stuff of which good agreements are made.”

Councilmembers Bobby Shriver and Kevin McKeown were both absent from the meeting.

The conversation of parking at Saint John’s is over for now, but will likely become a topic of interest again when the hospital begins its second phase of development, which will include the south campus.

That consideration might be another reason to hold off on forcing the hospital to build parking now, Harding said.

“It will allow Saint John’s and the city to work through phase one and phase two with both on the table,” he said.

ashley@smdp.com

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