CITY HALL — Parking, ever the touchstone issue in densely-developed Santa Monica, has been a major talking point at Planning Commission and City Council meetings over past months.

It has been the subject of ferocious debates, at the heart of which are two major players — Saint John’s Health Center and Equity Office Properties, the owner of the Yahoo! Center.

Each have development agreements, contracts with City Hall that give them the right to build outside normal zoning rules in exchange for public benefits, that include a requirement to provide parking, a concept which has been abandoned in recent years by city planners.

Both have tried to circumvent those requirements, most notably through a deal with each other to share parking in keeping with City Hall’s new wave of thinking, embodied in the 2010 land use and circulation element, or LUCE.

Comments at public meetings have spanned the spectrum of civility, calling the developments cheats and liars for profiting off of each other’s largesse.

What many ignore is that both actors have other community benefits built into their development agreements, which account for millions of dollars in services to the homeless, local schools and civic-minded citizens.

Those responsibilities have been, and continue to be, met in full.

Saint John’s Medical Center is the gift that keeps on giving, although few in the community know the extent of it.

In 2010 alone, the hospital gave over $8.1 million in cash grants and in-kind services to a host of community groups including homeless services providers and the local schools.

That dollar amount has only risen since the hospital entered into the contract with City Hall to get special provisions to rebuild after the destruction wreaked by the 1994 Northridge earthquake.

It’s based on a complex formula built into the development agreement, explained Chris Harding, the land use attorney representing Saint John’s in its negotiations with City Hall.

An important element of that agreement is the Community Access Plan, or CAP, that requires a certain amount of that money go to programs or organizations that help Santa Monicans.

On that score, Saint John’s has been doing more than its civic duty.

“We would be at $875,000 for this year,” Harding said. “Saint John’s spent over $5 million. Much more of their benefits program is local than the DA requires it to be.”

That $5,259,235, to be exact, is divided between five categories, including cash and in-kind support for the school district, medical and mental health services for the school district and nonprofit organizations and community service that promotes health in Santa Monica.

Money and services go directly to needy children, victims of abuse, people with disabilities and the homeless.

The hospital also provides a child care facility, which it operates at a loss, pumping approximately $300,000 into it every year, officials at the hospital said.

The program has 66 openings, 13 of which are filled by Santa Monica children. As part of its deal with City Hall, the hospital provides $98,000 in subsidies to offset the $1,000 per month tuition for low-income families, said Julie Rusk, the human services manager at City Hall.

“It’s a really vital piece,” Rusk said. “It helps not only low-income hospital workers, but also low-income members of the community.”

Saint John’s work doesn’t end there. As part of a California requirement, the hospital must provide another formula-driven amount of benefits to its community, which includes but isn’t exclusive to Santa Monica.

According to the 2010 Community Benefits report turned into the state, the hospital provided $30,191,713 in community benefits and un-reimbursed Medicare costs.

While a for-profit office park doesn’t have to show quite the same level on ongoing giving as a nonprofit community hospital, getting the right to build the sprawling complex in Santa Monica was no cheap feat for the original owners of the Yahoo! Center.

That development agreement, crafted in 1981, required that the original developer — a limited liability corporation called Colorado Place, LTD — spend millions on everything from beautification to affordable housing to get the now-underutilized office park built.

The agreement required a child care center, a community room, a 3.5 acre public park with specific sports and gathering amenities, 51 units of affordable housing, street improvements, parking for tenants and free parking for park patrons on weekends and holidays.

On top of that, Colorado Place, LTD also gave $2,652,909 to the City Hall affordable housing fund, and almost $3 million to maintain the park and community room.

That maintenance — as well as free parking in the evenings for park goers and users of the community room — has continued, said Dale Goldsmith, the land use attorney representing Equity Office Properties in its negotiations with City Hall.

“It strikes me, based on some of the other developments in Santa Monica, that there are a lot of public benefits here,” Goldsmith said.

In the end, however, it always comes back to parking.

Both developments hold to the thought that their biggest community benefits of late lie in the one thing that has drawn the ire of vocal community members.

“The primary benefit is shared parking,” Harding said.

“I think that, in and of itself, is a substantial public benefit,” Goldsmith said to a similar question.

In the view of both attorneys, the shared parking, and the plans City Hall is requiring to reduce the impact of traffic in the area, are in keeping with the LUCE, a benefit difficult to put a dollar value on.

The benefit comes less in what the two developments are giving, in dollars, but rather what they’re saving the world in terms of resources and the community in terms of the growing pains of building a subterranean parking garage.

Rather than venture a guess as to what the actual benefit is, Goldsmith pointed to the $40,000 valuation City Council member Terry O’Day put on each parking stall at the June 14 meeting when the Yahoo! Center amendment was approved.

“That’s the equivalent of a $40 million benefit to the community,” Goldsmith said, referencing the 1,053 parking spaces being leased to off-site businesses at the Yahoo! Center.

This line of logic hasn’t been widely accepted by Mid-City neighbors, many of whom gathered at public meetings to accuse Yahoo! Center of profiting off of parking meant for the community and Saint John’s of dodging its responsibilities in building the parking structure.

For the two developers, however, it’s just one more notch on the side of community benefits, whether the community thinks it’s benefiting or not.

“I think that the LUCE was supported by a broad consensus, with the majority of the public involved,” Harding said. “It’s one thing to support a concept, and a different matter when a concrete proposal comes forward that implements that policy.”

ashley@smdp.com

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