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USC Gets City OK To Bring 'Sticks Of Dynamite And Bulldozers' For University Village

Elysia Rodriguez |
December 17, 2012 | 3:46 p.m. PST

Staff Reporter

Community members support job creation at The Village. (Elysia Rodriguez/ Neon Tommy)
Community members support job creation at The Village. (Elysia Rodriguez/ Neon Tommy)
Searching for a solution to improve a retail center a stone's throw from campus while providing more student housing, the University of Southern California realized bringing in a wrecking ball was the only option. Happy that most community concerns had been quieted, the Los Angeles City Council unanimously approved last week what will be the the largest construction project in South Los Angeles.

University faculty and community neighbors gathered at City Hall to voice their opinions on the school's $1 billion plan to demolish the existing shopping center and replace it with an all new design, The Village at USC. The Village will feature popular retail shops, restaurants, a movie theater and new living spaces for students.  

Practically every one who voiced their opinion at the hearing was in favor of the development and a sea of cardinal and gold could be seen in the eager audience of supporters. 

But the project, which was first introduced nine years ago, has not always had the same popular support within the school's surrounding community. 

Initially, locals feared that while the new village may be beneficial to the university's prestige, legacy and student body, the effect it personally would have on them could be detrimental.

The urban area immediately around USC is primarily made up of low-income minorities who worry that the shopping center will eventually force them from their homes, further dividing and gentrifying the university and local communities.

Landlords capitalize on USC's inability to house its growing student body by renting to students at higher rates than they could with single-income families, forcing out residents who can no longer afford their homes of 20-30 years. 

Families walk through the current University Village
Families walk through the current University Village
According to a report by the Human Impact Partners and Esperanza Community Housing Corporation, the neighborhood has already seen trends of displacement over the past few decades. Residents near campus are replaced more quickly than in any part of LA and while the Latino and Black population is rising around the city it has significantly decreased around the campus, which the report attributes to displacement.

The Village aims to alleviate this issue by providing housing for 5,200 students and 250 faculty and staff members. According to the City's Draft Environmental Impact Report, more than 900 housing units in the surrounding area currently in use by students will return back to community members. 

USC has been trying to keep the community involved by holding almost 300 community meetings, publicizing with bilingual material and going door-to-door talking about the plan and encouraging community members to voice their opinions.

They have attempted to gain community support by emphasizing that of the 12,000 new jobs (4,000 construction-related and 8,000 permanent) the Village renovation would create, 30 percent would go to local residents within a 5-mile radius of campus. They also have promised to pay about $20 million to create and maintain affordable housing within the community.

Concerns about The Village still exist, but following much debate and compromise all the organizations that once opposed the plan are now in favor of it. 

The coalition Strategic Actions for a Just Economy, which consists of a number of offshoot community rights groups, had protested USC's expansion plan until as late as this July.

But on Tuesday, SAJE's Paulina Gonzalez said, “We are proud to support the USC Specific Plan… a collaborative process has played a key role in bringing about these [community] benefits”

Councilwoman Jan Perry praised how far cooperation has come, “At times it was difficult; there was rankness… debate… [and] dissent. But that's what I think it means to be a good Trojan, to get in there, fight on, move the community forward and leave no one behind.” 

Community members discuss The Village's effects at Tuesday's public hearing. (Elysia Rodriguez / Neon Tommy)
Community members discuss The Village's effects at Tuesday's public hearing. (Elysia Rodriguez / Neon Tommy)
The hearing's solitary voice of opposition came from Hugo Ayes Rodriguez, manager of the burger-joint Wendy's in the village.

While Rodriguez applauded USC's outreach to residents, he painted a different picture from his business' side, “I'm worried that somehow I've fallen through the cracks…I've not gotten any assistance whatsoever.”

While The Village's website assures that “businesses that are in good standing will have an opportunity to relocate” into the new shopping center, the current fate of each store is unclear, worrying community patrons. 

“I'm really sad we're losing Superior [Grocers] because… it's the cheapest and most affordable for not only the students who can't afford to go to Ralph's and get produce, but also for the community,” said USC sophomore Matt Del Muro. 

Some worry that The Village will attract unaffordable stores, but David Galaviz, executive director of USC Local Government Relations and this project's head of community outreach, said it would not be like the Grove or the Glendale Galleria. Instead, it will include “reasonably priced” retailers that both students and community members can use. 

The Village is making a significant effort to attract non-USC patrons as well. “At least 50 percent of our shoppers need to be constant shoppers, USC students are transitional and are only here for a few months,” Galaviz said.

Those who have supported the project from the very beginning look forward to the drastic makeover the rundown shopping center will receive. Students have been requesting more retail shops nearby campus and look forward to the additions of stores like Forever 21, Barnes and Noble and an Apple Store.

“The plans to build The Village are already going through, we will have to wait and see what its long-term effects will be but I look forward to having access to stores I actually want to shop at,” said sophomore Kristine Kwak.

The current Village, built in 1975, lies just across the street from USC's northern end of campus but according to alum Michael Donovan, its antiquated design has contributed to its commercial failure.   

The current University Village's food court remains empty on a rainy day. (Elysia Rodriguez / Neon Tommy)
The current University Village's food court remains empty on a rainy day. (Elysia Rodriguez / Neon Tommy)
Donovan served on a Technical Advisory Panel (TAP) commissioned by the Urban Land Institute, which sought to determine how to best improve the area from the Shrine to Hoover. 

“We were meant to come up with designs to make it better but what you really need are sticks of dynamite and bulldozers…there is no other way to improve it,” he said.

The Village has been performing poorly for some time now, especially considering its prime location. TAP found that The Village's inward facing design does not draw in customers, which has been a longstanding issue. 

Thirteen years ago, Alexander Hernandez, manager of Subway when The Village was first purchased by USC in 1999, told the Daily Trojan, “We…need signs that publicize what stores are in here. USC students know what they have, but people driving by don't.”

The new shopping center is just one part of a 30-year Master Plan, begun in 2006, that seeks to “create a safe, attractive, sustainable campus and neighboring urban community.”

The Master Plan is not the school's first attempt at public improvement. As LA's largest private employer, USC tries to reach out to residents beyond its campus through its family of community schools and projects like its Good Neighbors Campaign.

USC senior David Hernandez said, “USC has a history of being engaged and involved in its community…they are making sure no rock has been left unturned.”

The relationship between the school and its community has often been strenuous for both parties. But The Village's wide support offers hopeful signs for further cooperation, although it will almost surely not be the last conflict.      

While it may seem like USC and local community members have goals at odds with one another, chairman of the City Council Planning and Land Use Management Committee Ed Reyes, kept things in perspective by saying, “When it comes to the brotherhood of teaching and raising up our community, we all come from the same school.”


Read more of Neon Tommy's coverage on University Village here.

Reach Contributor Elysia Rodriguez here.



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