Jon Murga has the kind of enthusiasm that East Los Angeles needs to turn around its blighted neighborhoods.
Five years ago, Murga took advantage of low interest rates, cheap property prices and his inherent optimism to move his construction management business out of downtown L.A. into an aging neighborhood east of USC's Health Sciences Campus.
The neighborhood is largely characterized by pot-holed streets bereft of sidewalks and lined with aging warehouses, auto impound yards and repair shops whose owners can't keep up with the graffiti artists. But the area is also west of Cal State Los Angeles, two major freeways and other commercial thoroughfares.
Murga figured the area was due for a comeback, and he was right. Today, the neighborhood has been designated the Whiteside Redevelopment Area and county officials have big plans to turn it into a thriving biotech hub.
"Transforming a blighted area brings a new way of being to the people who live around there," said Murga, whose Advanced Business Group Inc. is in a trim green building on Medford Street, which bisects the 171-acre redevelopment zone that county supervisors approved last fall.
Murga's patience may have to exceed his enthusiasm if he wants to participate in the dreams of county, city, and university officials. The goal is to transform hundreds of acres of aging and mostly dilapidated properties in a neighborhood bordered by the San Bernardino Freeway, the 701 Freeway and the Santa Fe railroad track.
But despite years of debate and piles of feasibility studies, the complicated efforts to redevelop the area which began with a proposal to build a biotech park at the Health Sciences Campus have yet to get started. In 2001, the university's Keck School of Medicine announced an ambitious plan to build a business park that would house biotech startups and other companies. However, the project has been slow getting off the ground despite support from major philanthropists such as Eli Broad.
A $25 million gift from the Broad Foundation last year will help build a stem cell research institute in the middle of campus that may one day spawn startup companies. The university is also hiring an architect to sketch out concepts for an 11-acre parcel that could house companies spun off from the Alfred E. Mann Institute for Biomedical Engineering, a campus incubator designed to commercialize USC research.
However, that's still a far cry from the 100-acre biotech park that USC envisioned in 2001.
"The political winds seem to blow hot and cold on this (regional biotech park) project," said Brian Henderson, dean of the Keck School of Medicine. "The kind of major developer with a national presence that we'd like to attract how do you convince them to come in when you don't know what's going to be available for them?"
Conceptually, USC's complex of medical research institutions and two hospitals would anchor the commercial development, starting with the 11-acre university-owned parcel at the north end of campus. However, the proposal has been slowed because much of the park is planned for county land.
After a year of debate, a county juvenile detention center across the street was eventually dropped from the plan because of the cost and difficulty of finding a new home for the facility. And USC's parcel is sandwiched between two county controlled parcels that total 18 acres.
Developing those parcels has proven difficult because they serve as maintenance yards for county road crews and flood control district workers, and are encumbered by complex rules that prevent the county from simply declaring them surplus and available for lease to an appropriate developer.
Moreover, there also is adjacent land within L.A.'s city limits that has been designated its own redevelopment project area.
Still, more than just biotech is planned for the area. When the new County-USC Hospital opens in the next several months, the old hospital site at the south end of the Health Sciences campus will be available for commercial development. And Cal State officials would like the county to encourage student-faculty housing and retail amenities at their end of the project.
Despite the delays, county officials say much has been accomplished in the last two years toward creating a truly regional cooperative project that would merge Whiteside with the city's Adelante Eastside Redevelopment Project Area, potentially with a joint powers authority to oversee the projects. Public votes on both issues could come next year.
Separately, the county is finalizing details of a contract with the L.A. County Economic Development Corp. to prepare a document that would guide development. It is similar to a study that preceded the county's Grand Avenue plan in downtown L.A.
"We think Grand Avenue can serve as a model for what can happen when the county and city work together," said Miguel Santana, chief of staff for Supervisor Gloria Molina. "When Grand Avenue is built, no one will remember how we got there. We want the same to happen at Whiteside."
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