BERGAMOT STATION — Less well-to-do cities would throw out the welcome mat for a company like Agensys, a biotech firm researching cancer treatments that is both a clean manufacturer and a provider of high-paying jobs.
But not Santa Monica.
The company, which already occupies several buildings in the city, wants to expand and consolidate its operations by constructing a 153,000-square-foot building at 1800 Stewart St., a City Hall-owned site next to the future Bergamot Station light rail stop.
Because the company’s site is in a specially designated zone called the Light Manufacturing and Studio District, Agensys needs the City Council’s approval to move ahead, though the scale of its project otherwise wouldn’t trigger the requirement for a development agreement.
At a hearing on the firm’s plans last Tuesday, members of the council praised the company as an example of a successful, locally-founded operation that has demonstrated a willingness to adapt to community concerns.
Then they made it clear that if Agensys is going to win permission for the expansion, it’s going to have to provide significantly more “community benefits” than it’s already proposed.
Agensys has suggested offering benefits that include incorporating publicly accessible open space into its design, offering programs to introduce youths to the field of biotechnology, possibly offering shared parking for events at Bergamot Station, and taking steps to reduce its employees’ vehicle trips.
Those proposals, Councilman Bobby Shriver said at the meeting, aren’t nearly enough.
In particular, he said, the notion that offering school children tours of the facility constitutes a significant community benefit is a stretch.
“That kind of stuff, which I would think of as just sort of good neighborliness, I think doesn’t cut it in return for the four acres of land,” he said.
Agensys would pay City Hall market-rate rent for a long-term lease agreement should the project move forward. Representatives from the company last Tuesday said they plan to seek a deal with City Hall that would give the company a 50-year lease on the property.
Despite the rental income, Shriver said granting Agensys the long-term use of a valuable City Hall resource means the council has leverage to exact significant benefits from the company.
“Since I feel that that’s a very, very, very valuable thing that we’re giving them, that we have to, when we come up to vote on this, see some really very valuable things on the table,” he said.
Among those valuable things should be a cafe that’s open to the public and a firm and enforceable commitment from the company to hire local people for lower-level jobs, he said.
Other members of the council echoed Shriver’s sentiments and added their own ideas for improved benefits to the mix.
While Councilman Kevin McKeown in an interview with the Daily Press praised the company for scrapping an earlier design for the project that he called an “Orange County office park-looking structure that just was wrong,” he said Agensys would have to find a way to incorporate a bike route into the project to gain his support.
And Councilwoman Gleam Davis, who called the proposal a “tremendous project,” added her voice to the chorus calling for an enhanced local jobs program that would include recruiting residents for high-tech positions.
“Given the present state of the economy, I think it’s really important that when people want to come and invest in our community that they not just invest in terms of infrastructure but invest in terms of people,” she said.
A jobs program, she said, shouldn’t just require the company to hire locals for low-paying jobs at the company, but should seek to give Santa Monica residents priority in getting high-paying technical positions with Agensys.
“I think it really is an opportunity for us to create a high-tech job pipeline,” she said, perhaps by setting up an internship program with local schools.
To attorney Dale Goldsmith, who is representing Agensys in the proposed deal, the council’s ideas are just the starting point in a negotiation that he said he hopes will result in a balance between public benefits and his client’s legitimate needs.
While Agensys prefers to remain in Santa Monica, he said “a number of other jurisdictions have actively courted” the company and are willing to offer inducements to land the company’s headquarters.
“If it doesn’t work out [in Santa Monica] there are options B, C and D that would be very attractive as well,” Goldsmith said.
He said simply having a cancer treatment research company in town should be considered a public benefit in itself, and that should prompt the City Council to deal with Agensys differently from how it might negotiate with a developer seeking to make a profit by renting newly-built commercial space to a third party.
“Every dollar spent on public benefits is a potential dollar taken away from cancer research,” he said. “We’re hopeful that the city recognizes that and seeks to come up with an equitable balance.”
Shriver, though, said the council is negotiating with a strong hand. While other cities might have to offer incentives to attract desirable employers to town, he said that’s not the case in Santa Monica — recession or no recession.
“Santa Monica is a block from the beach. It doesn’t take a lot of heavy lifting to get people interested in stuff a block from the beach,” he said.