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|Winning by Losing|
By Frank Gruber
September 13, 2010 -- Tomorrow night the Santa Monica City Council will consider a development agreement for a project in Santa Monica’s old industrial corridor for the first time since adopting the new land use and circulation elements (LUCE) of the City’s general plan.
The proposed development is the Agensys project the Planning Commission recently approved. (See story: Planning Commission Supports Cancer Research Development Project,September 8, 2010.) Agensys is a pharmaceutical company that develops treatments for cancer; it’s already located in Santa Monica, but spread out in five locations, and the company wants to consolidate its operations.
The location Agensys found is a 176,000 square foot property at 1800 Stewart Street; the site is just south of Olympic and immediately to the east of Bergamot Station, which, significantly, will be the location of a stop on the Expo light rail line. As it happens, the City of Santa Monica owns the property, but it is under a long-term ground lease, and Agensys is working with the ground lessee. Industrial-type buildings and sheds are now on the site, and one of them on the rear property line cuts the project off from Bergamot.
Part of the dynamic of the approval process for the Agensys project is that in February 2009 the City gave administrative approval to permit a small addition to one of the buildings on the site that would bring in a new entertainment production company as a tenant. Those plans would not do anything to connect the site to Bergamot. Agensys, however, would tear down the building that blocks access to Bergamot, and its project provides an opportunity to connect the future station to the businesses and neighborhoods to the south and east.
Without this connection, the Bergamot Expo stop will be isolated, reachable from the east only from the “other side” of Olympic Boulevard.
The Agensys project may seem like a garden-variety commercial development, but in fact it’s a necessity.
As for the merits of the project -- beyond the benefits of retaining a good local business – there is good and not so good. One welcome element is the manufacturing component that will be part of the project -- perhaps the first manufacturing facility to be built in Santa Monica’s industrial district in many years.
But another throwback is that the project will have surface parking; it’s hard to believe that there is a commercial property in Santa Monica where it is not financially advantageous to create more developable land by putting parking underground or in structures. Fortunately the City, during the approval process, managed to decrease the amount of parking, to take into account the proximity to Expo. From a design standpoint it will also be good that the parking will be, under the current plan, distributed throughout the site rather than concentrated in an ugly parking lot. Nonetheless, with the surface parking, the project would fit better into a suburban office park than in the kind of development envisioned in the LUCE.
Nor will the project have a housing component, even though under the LUCE overall development in the Bergamot area is planned to be 40 percent residential. While only about 20 percent (31,000 square feet) of the Agensys development represents an increase over the existing amount of commercial development on the site, let’s hope there are some nearby residential projects to provide balance.
But the biggest issue with the project arises from the site’s lack of connectivity; the property is part of a super-block with no real cross-streets that extends from Olympic to Kansas Avenue south of the freeway, and from Stewart to Cloverfield. Part of the connectivity problem arises from some large undivided land uses, such as the city yards and Bergamot itself, but when the freeway was cut through the area 50 years ago, it disrupted the street grid.
One of the mandates in the LUCE is to break up the super-blocks in the historic industrial areas to increase connectivity. While nothing that could happen at the Agensys site could solve all the problems of the super-block, it’s frustrating, given that the City owns all the properties in the area, including Bergamot and the city yards, that the City didn’t anticipate the future redevelopment of the area and develop plans years ago to extend Michigan Avenue, along the southern edges of Bergamot and the 1800 Stewart site, to connect with Stewart.
After all, the City owns the land and you would think that it might have been able to do something like negotiate an easement for a new street in turn for an extension of the ground lease. But there was no plan for that. Although a real street will have to wait until some future date when the City redevelops the city yards, through the development agreement process the City caused Agensys to revise its plans to include a pedestrian path that will connect Bergamot to Stewart Street.
Now is the moment -- drum roll, please -- to bring up the role of bicycle activists in the evolution of the Agensys plan. Under the banner of Santa Monica Spoke, a local offshoot of the L.A. County Bicycle Coalition, the cyclists, notably Santa Monica’s indefatigable urbanista Barbara Filet, did the kind of analysis about connectivity that the City’s planners should have been doing from the start.
Although the cyclists did not persuade the Planning Commission to require a bikeway through the site, and it’s unlikely that the City Council will hold up the project to require one, this is one of those cases that so often happen in Santa Monica where activists seem to lose but in fact win. (Other recent examples include activists saving 100 trees downtown and causing a redesign of the Expo maintenance yard.)
The cycists won for two reasons. First, their efforts contributed to the inclusion of the pedestrian path, a path that will be between 10 and 30 feet wide. While for liability reasons, Agensys refuses to call this a bike path, and there will no doubt be signs that say “peds only,” cyclists will be able to walk their bikes on the path.
Does anyone think that cyclists won’t ride their bikes on the pedestrian path? If you don’t think so, let me ask you a question: do pedestrians use the beach bike path despite all the “bikes only” signs?
The other reason that the cyclists won is that they brought their issues to the forefront of Planning Department, Planning Commission, and City Council thinking in the time-tested Santa Monica way -- by organizing. They are now recognized as a political force, and already the planners are talking about ultimately extending Michigan Avenue as a bicycle-friendly street when the city yards are redeveloped.
Sunday, September 19, 1:00 - 3:00 pm
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