|The Lookout columns
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|Set a Good Example
By Frank Gruber
September 20, 2010 -- Last week the Santa Monica City Council approved the Agensys project on Stewart Street. Given that I wrote in my column last week that the project was a “necessity” because of the access it would provide to the Bergamot Station stop on the Expo light rail line, you’d think I’d be happy.
But all I can think about is how disappointing the project is.
On a crucial site, on land the City of Santa Monica owns, what will be constructed is a low-density, suburban-style single-use facility barely connected to Bergamot by a pedestrian path. Bergamot is isolated, cut off from the traffic grid, but the City did not try, in the negotiations to extend the existing ground lease to enable the Agensys project to be financed, to negotiate a giveback of land to allow for an extension of Michigan Avenue to Stewart. For this reason the development will do nothing to fix the circulation problems that will arise around the new Expo station.
Other than Bergamot’s frontage on Olympic Boulevard, a divided highway, Bergamot has no connections to two-way through streets. As was evident in July when the City Council reviewed conceptual plans for the Expo stations, nearly all of the City’s planning for the station focuses on connecting the station to the commercial developments on the north side of Olympic; very little on how to connect the station to the residential neighborhoods to the south and east, including the low-income Pico Neighborhood.
Even if Agensys had given up the land for the street, there would still have been plenty of room on the four-acre site for the company’s low-scale facilities; as it is, the “floor-to-area-ratio” of the project is less than one, which is far less than the 3.5 F.A.R. allowable for the Bergamot district under the new land use element of the general plan.
The City Council will consider a slew of development agreements for projects near Bergamot in the next year or two. Under the new land use element the City wants developers to provide new streets cutting across super blocks and build relatively dense mixed-use developments with good street connections. What kind of message does it send that in a situation where the City owned the land, and was in effect a co-developer, it failed to achieve any of these objectives?
At the council’s hearing on the Agensys project last week, supporters made a lot of the fact that Agensys is not a developer, but rather a company that will use the project itself, and even more that it would use the facilities to find cures for cancer. Mayor Bobby Shriver, who was the one vote against the project, called the latter rationalization “cancer-washing”.
That was rather brave, but I’d rather focus any courage I have on the idea that somehow the project is better because a developer wasn’t building it. Developers are so often the villains in local politics that one can forget that when it comes to developing land, as with anything else, it’s best to work with people who know what they are doing -- professionals.
A savvy, urbanistically-inclined developer would have looked at the site and seen it for all its potential, not just as a generic piece of land good for a one-purpose facility and a parking lot. Such a developer might well have suggested the street extension to the City, because more access to the site could make it more valuable.
Instead, Agensys and City staff seemed to react to the bicycle activists who wanted bike access through the site as if the cyclists were trying to kill the project, but their purpose was the exact opposite: to make it better.
Mayor Shriver focused his criticism of the deal the City made to extend the lease on the lack of any guarantees by Agensys to hire Santa Monica residents. I don’t agree that jobs for a few residents are appropriate public benefits for the City to negotiate for in a real estate negotiation, but Mayor Shriver was right to argue that when the City is the land owner, it needs to act like one.
Council Member Richard Bloom was no doubt correct that many cities would bend over backwards to nab a good employer like Agensys, but that doesn’t mean negotiations have to be a zero-sum game. When property owners negotiate with developers, their goals are to add value to each other’s investments. The value of this site for the City had much more to do with the layout of streets than with any rent the City will receive.
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