Public benefits are a major aspect of City Hall’s General Plan update (known as the Land Use and Circulation Element, or LUCE) approved a couple months ago by the City Council.
It mandates that public benefits must be provided in conjunction with commercial development. One could argue that the increased property value, taxes and employment would be sufficient, but this is Santa Monica, where agenda rules.
Exactly what constitutes a real public benefit? It depends on who you ask.
The issue arose with a proposed 153,000 square-foot complex at 1800 Stewart St. where Agensys, Inc., a biomedical technology company involved in research and development of anti-cancer pharmaceuticals, wants to consolidate its Santa Monica operations under one roof.
The firm is requesting a development agreement to build new corporate offices and research facilities. It’s one of six large developments awaiting DAs in the eastern Mid-City area: Hine’s Bergamot Transit Village on the present Paper Mate property, Paseo Nebraska (at the current Santa Monica Studios), Lionsgate corporate headquarters at Stewart and Colorado Avenue as well as a development on the site of the current Village Trailer Park and Roberts Center.
Agensys proposes a development upwards of 45-50 feet (two and three floors) high with an open landscaped plaza and surface parking for 200 to 220 vehicles. Currently, the city-owned site contains a cluster of derelict industrial buildings.
As benefits, Agensys will provide widened sidewalks on Stewart Street, an on-site pedestrian pathway to connect to Bergamot Station and the proposed Expo Light Rail station directly to the west, and a publicly accessible cafe with outdoor seating facing Stewart.
Agensys also promises to build a LEED-Certified building and implement trip reduction programs to discourage private vehicle use by employees. It has offered to share parking facilities with neighbors and has promised to initiate programs to help local youth obtain careers in the biotechnology field. All of these sound very reasonable to me.
However, members of the public and the usual City Hall politicians and bureaucrats have a much longer wish list for Agensys. At an April 27 City Council discussion on the project, Councilmember Gleam Davis suggested Agensys sponsor a youth soccer team, provide job training and hire both skilled and unskilled local workers during and after the building process.
A couple of transit advocates suggested the company give out free passes to encourage employee use of mass transit. One neighbor suggested that Agensys contribute to construction of a light rail overpass or underpass at Stewart Street to help alleviate traffic congestion.
What makes the most sense is that the public benefit provide something of value for most of our citizens, not a select few. So, with the light rail and all the other developments proposed for that neighborhood, why has only one resident addressed traffic infrastructure?
Currently, there is no traffic signal at the site. Agensys will inevitably ask to replace stop signs with signalized access to/from their property and Exposition Boulevard which “Ts” into Stewart across the street. With substantial traffic increases expected in the next few years, especially after Expo rail starts operating and the other large projects come on line, traffic upgrades would be a natural and necessary benefit for everyone who lives, works or travels the neighborhood.
Missing from the various requests is an on-premises “affordable housing” component, homeless shelter or any of a number of usual “feel good” proposals often proffered in these circumstances — benefits that don’t really serve the needs of residents or the developer, thankfully.
A pair of hardcore bicycle advocates suggested that part of the site should be set aside for a dedicated bike path. Barbara Filet had the unmitigated gall to suggest that Agensys should be required to build a “notch or tunnel" through one of its buildings so she and her friends can ride through the property if on-site open space for a bike path couldn’t be found.
Councilman Kevin McKeown praised suggestions that the development be a link in Filet’s proposal for a second tortured and circuitous bike path route through the Pico Neighborhood and beyond despite Expo’s planned, parallel, crosstown bike trail a few hundred feet away. So, why should Agensys surrender a portion of property it’s paying for to accommodate “persons off the street” with selfish ideas of entitlement?
Agensys could easily relocate its 300-plus jobs and community benefits to Agoura or the West Valley where they won’t have to deal with this “what’s yours is mine” foolishness — leaving City Hall empty handed and holding the bag.
Agensys has already put a lot on the table. When their final DA comes before the council in a few weeks for approval, let’s hope McKeown, Davis, Pam O’Connor and Terry O’Day and the other social engineers don’t force a lot of mumbo-jumbo into the mix and kill the goose that’s laying the golden eggs.