A long-stalled plan to build a biotech park next to USC's Health Science Campus has been revived, spurred by the $3 billion set aside by Proposition 71 for stem cell research.


The university and Los Angeles County, as well as the city of Los Angeles, have reached a tentative agreement that would have USC building what amounts to a pilot park project on 12 acres of land it already owns.


The plan is a far cry from the 110-acre, suburban-style park originally proposed three years ago. But university officials said that with Proposition 71 research money ready to be dispensed, it was important to move forward, even with a smaller project.


"This (proposition) offers a tremendous opportunity," said Dr. Zach Hall, senior associate dean of research at USC's Keck School of Medicine. "It gave a sense of urgency to the entire project."


The original proposal has been stymied for years over a variety of thorny issues, most importantly the question of what to do with of a county juvenile hall in the middle of the 110-acre site.


County officials estimated it would cost $200 million to move the facility money the cash-strapped county did not have. Even a subsequent agreement reached two years ago to build the park in three phases went nowhere due to the complexity of land ownership in the area.


The new plan sidesteps those issues by having USC move forward with construction on the 12 acres it owns near its Health Sciences Campus. Already, the university has drawn up preliminary plans for a five-story building on the corner of Alcazar and San Pablo streets, Hall said.


The building would have space for university researchers, as well as at least two floors that could be used as incubator space by biotech startups.


The building, yet to be approved by USC's Board of Trustees, is envisioned as complementing a planned 250,000-square-foot research tower that would be built nearby and that has already been given board approval, he said.


That research tower, which was planned prior to the passage of Proposition 71, was already planned to include space for stem cell research, but now the university plans to expand that space. Hall said the school is looking to attract researchers from other states.


"The city and the county and USC are all on the same page now," Nicole Englund, planning deputy for Supervisor Gloria Molina, whose district includes the Boyle Heights neighborhood. "We are in agreement to start with a test phase of two or three buildings and expand from there."


The city has been participating in the talks, because the only feasible direction for any additional possible expansion would be eastward onto a hodgepodge of industrial land owned by the city and county.


Englund said redeveloping that land would require a joint county-city redevelopment project that the parties have already begun discussing.


Ahmed Enany, executive of the Southern California Biomedical Council, which had been a prime advocate of the original 110-acre project, said the new approach was a smart alternative.


"You cannot talk theoretically. You have to do something concrete. Work within the market. Then you are creating the seed that will change the status quo," said Enany, who still wants the juvenile detention facility moved.


Thumbs Up


California Medicare patients appear to have gotten a break in last week's announcement by the federal government over its plans to administer the new Medicare program.


The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services ruled that the state will be its own region for the purpose of administering the system's new drug benefit and for establishing new Medicare HMOs.


Local insurers had argued that to place California with any other state would make it more complex for them to participate in the system and thus less likely to.


"Each of the states we operate in is regulated by different entities and we set up provider networks for each specific state. Because California is so huge it makes sense to group it by itself," said Cheryl Randolph, a spokeswoman for PacifiCare Health Systems Inc.


Other stand-alone states are New York, Texas and Florida, as well as some lower population states such as New Mexico and Mississippi.


Nurse Fight


The battle over Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's decision to relax the state's landmark nurse staffing law burst out in the open last week when the California Nurses Association picketed and heckled a speech by the governor in Long Beach.


But that flare-up is practically a sideshow compared with the continued animosity between the union, which sponsored the law, and the California Healthcare Association, a hospital lobbying group that has funded television advertisements thanking the governor for his decision.


In recent public statements, the association has labeled the union a "small group of militant labor organizers" that represents "less than 25 percent of all nurses in California." The union responds that its 60,000 members make it the state's largest registered nurses' union.


Staff reporter Laurence Darmiento can be reached at (323) 549-5225, ext. 237, or at ldarmiento@labusinessjournal.com.

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