For nearly 15 years, the dream of a major biomedical park near Los Angeles County-USC Medical Center on L.A.’s Eastside has eluded USC and industry leaders, shoved aside by competing county and university priorities.
But thanks to a change at the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors, USC and other backers are pushing the biomedical park with renewed hope that it will finally become reality. Former Supervisor Gloria Molina, seen by some as an obstacle to the park’s development, is out and new Supervisor Hilda Solis is in.
Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas confirmed last week that “discussions are now under way between the county and USC regarding the design of a biomedical campus,” with more details to emerge early in the new year.
The view from USC is just as hopeful.
“For the first time in years, I’m optimistic that with the momentum we’ve finally begun to build, this is going to happen,” said Tom Sayles, senior vice president for university relations at USC, which owns much of the land and is expected to take the lead in planning the biomed park.
At stake is the prospect of bringing in dozens of companies and hundreds – perhaps thousands – of high-paying jobs to a long-blighted Eastside neighborhood and of putting Los Angeles on the map as a major biomed and biotech center to rival San Diego or the Bay Area.
“Without this cluster, we’re seeing biomedical companies and projects move outside the region,” said Ahmed Enany, chief executive of industry booster group Southern California Biomedical Council. “We hope things are finally changing and this park can get back on track.”
Getting in sync?
The USC biomedical park would be located on roughly 50 acres straddling Valley Boulevard on the northern edge of the USC Health Sciences Campus in Boyle Heights. The land is within walking distance of three major hospitals: County-USC Medical Center, the USC Norris Cancer Center and USC University Hospital.
Such a park might be attractive to companies that want to get access to the physicians, researchers and staff of those hospitals as well as the lab space at those facilities. Clinical trials, also, would be much easier for companies next to the hospitals.
Until now, USC’s Sayles said, the county – which holds two of the larger parcels on the site of the proposed biomed park – has been out of sync with the university on the park plan.
County leaders initially pushed the idea in the late 1990s, but that was before biomedicine became a major focus for the university. Since then, USC has received several major donations earmarked for biomedical facilities and faculty.
But the county, meanwhile, has been considering other uses for its land, most recently for a storage facility and gallery for the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. The parcels are now county maintenance yards.
“We never had the public sector and the private sector in alignment at the same time to move this forward,” Sayles said.
One of the obstacles has been Molina’s desire to explore other options for the area. She left office Dec. 1 because of term limits and is now running for the Los Angeles City Council’s Eastside seat against incumbent Jose Huizar.
Back in 2001, when a plan for a 100-acre biomedical park was on the table, the Business Journal reported that Molina opposed the plan because it called for moving the county’s Eastlake Juvenile Hall, which she said would be too costly. (The new park proposal, half the size of the old, does not include the juvenile justice hall.)
Subsequent plans for a biomedical park were also shelved. Back in 2007, developers had expressed interest in the idea, but their support evaporated when the recession hit. Then, three years ago, the state eliminated redevelopment agencies. Redevelopment funds had been slated to pay for street and infrastructure improvements around the planned park.
Late last year, Molina approached the county art museum about building a 60,000-square-foot storage facility and art gallery on one of the county parcels, according to museum Director Michael Govan.
“We’ve been looking for storage space that we can own for a long time and she said there was this available land in her district,” he said.
But earlier this year, with the museum preoccupied with a planned $650 million makeover of its main campus on the Miracle Mile, Govan said the museum put the idea on the back burner. He added that he was unaware at the time that the site was envisioned as a biomed park; that use of the land, he said, “makes sense.”
Plans for the museum storage facility and gallery unnerved biomedical park supporters. They note that USC has already planned a 200-room hotel for a nearby parcel. While the hotel could serve biomedical industry clients and clinical patients, it still represents less space for actual biomedical facilities.
“If these parcels are gone, then it becomes more difficult to accumulate the land necessary to create the biomedical park,” Enany said.
Molina did not return calls and emails seeking comment on the museum storage proposal.
In addition to the LACMA storage proposal, though, the county has considered consolidating its maintenance yards on the site and selling off some of the land.
The effect of all these alternate proposals, according to Councilman Huizar, who represents the area, was to stall the plan for a biomedical park.
“What had been lacking really was clear direction from the county – case in point, the county’s use for its nearby parcels,” Huizar spokesman Rick Coca said last week.
Coca said the councilman hopes new Supervisor Solis will provide the clear direction to proceed with the biomedical park.
“Given the new leadership there, we want to revive our joint conversations with them and see how we can move forward,” he said.
Solis said in an email last week that she’s on board with the concept of a bioscience park at the USC Health Sciences Campus – but with a cautionary note.
“Any particular plans, however, need true community support,” she said. “I must be convinced the concerns of residents are addressed. I’m looking forward to hearing more from both USC and area residents in the coming weeks.”
This biomed park proposal is distinct from efforts under way to place a bioscience incubator at Cal State Los Angeles and build up a bioscience corridor nearby. That corridor would extend about 3.5 miles from the Cal State campus on the east to the USC Health Sciences Campus on the west. It essentially would involve repurposing some existing buildings for biomed/bioscience uses or tearing down some old buildings and replacing them with medical office-type buildings.
That said, the two proposals are not mutually exclusive. If the biomedical park on the USC Health Sciences Campus were to go forward, it could function as the western anchor for the larger biomedical corridor.
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