Village at USC: Good for the University and Los Angeles

As a planner and a former resident of the North University Park area, I have been very excited about the Village at USC since the proposal was first made public a couple of years ago.  After all, this is a large-scale project that would replace University Village, a declining shopping center across from campus, with a brand new attractive mixed-use development consisting of retail/commercial uses, student and faculty housing, a hotel and conference center, and other related amenities.  To my surprise and disappointment, the Los Angeles City Council’s Planning and Land Use Management Committee (PLUMC) decided to put the project on hold last week after community groups protested the project’s potential negative impact on the surrounding neighborhoods.  Specifically, after listening to three hours of testimony, the committee asked USC to provide more information about how other major universities have handled community concerns during major upgrades, including the possible displacement of low-income residents.

Before explaining why I think the Village at USC would be good for both the university and Los Angeles, let me first introduce the project.  (This video offers an overview)  The proposed project would provide: up to 350,000 square feet of retail/commercial uses; up to 500,000 square feet of academic/university serving uses; and approximately 2 million square feet of housing providing up to 5,200 student beds in a variety of housing types and configurations, and about 250 faculty housing units.  The project would also include a 165,000-square foot hotel and conference center with up to 150 guest rooms, conference and banquet facility areas, sit down restaurants, a swimming pool, and other related amenities.  In addition, a new University-affiliated K-8 laboratory school and community educational academy comprised of up to about 80,000 square feet may also be developed.  New landscaped public open space areas and associated facilities are proposed to enhance the campus and surrounding area.  Furthermore, the project would provide for improved pedestrian, bicycle, vehicle circulation.

Studies show that the Village at USC would offer the following economics benefits:

  • $1.1-billion construction-related boost to the Los Angeles County economy;
  • $2.8 million in one-time revenue to the City from construction; and
  • 12,000 new jobs, including about 4,000 construction jobs and 8,000 permanent jobs.

The project would provide community benefits as well, including:

  • Job opportunities (construction and operated-related) for community residents through USC’s Local Hiring Initiative;
  • Substantial new university housing to accommodate students, thereby reducing demand for non-university housing in surrounding neighborhoods and increasing availability of housing for community residents; and
  • Quality community-serving retail with full service grocery store, drug store, sit-down restaurants, and a movie theater.

(For a complete list of public benefits, refer to this pdf document.)

Opponents of the project do not seem to appreciate these economic and community benefits.  Instead, they have been very critical of USC and some groups have even gone to the extreme of falsely portraying the university as “Goliath” or a bully who gets what he wants because of his size and power.  This is inaccurate as USC has been working collaboratively with the City of Los Angeles and many stakeholders to develop the University Park Specific Plan (pdf document), including the Village at USC proposal.  For example, the university worked closely with the Planning Department to develop urban design guidelines and identify specific street improvements for Jefferson Boulevard, including pedestrian connections to the newly opened Metro Expo Line stations to encourage transit ridership.  USC will also enter into a Development Agreement (pdf document) as a means to address community concerns.

Prior to obtaining the City Planning Commission (CPC)’s approval of the Specific Plan and Development Agreement in May, USC agreed to the CPC’s recommendation to increase the university’s contribution to affordable housing programs from $2 million to $8 million and add $100,000 for transit connectivity enhancements for a total of over $26 million in one-time and recurring community benefits.  The city planners responsible for reviewing and processing the Specific Plan have even referred to it as “a major catalytic project in South Los Angeles that offers an opportunity to address many long-standing community concerns.”

At last week’s hearing before the PLUMC, some groups testified that they believed that USC students would continue to live in nearby off-campus housing and that the university was not offering enough money to make up for the loss of that low-income housing.  Specifically, they argued that USC should contribute at least $20 million to affordable housing programs, even after the school agreed to up its payment to $8 million.  I understand the need for affordable housing is great, but demanding such a large sum of money from the university is rather unreasonable, especially when its proposal would actually free up more non-university housing for community residents.  Also, it is unclear whether $20 million would satisfy the groups as they view USC as being entirely responsible for a variety of neighborhood problems, not just the lack of affordable housing.

USC should be rewarded for its commitment to thoughtful planning and caring for the neighboring communities.  The Specific Plan is an example of quality master planning and should be implemented to bring about the economic and community benefits stated earlier.  Also, in recent years, the university has continually shown its commitment to surrounding neighborhoods through its outreach programs and efforts like the Good Neighbors Campaign.  While I understand the PLUMC’s need for additional information to make an informed decision, I hope that the City Council will soon approve the Specific Plan because it is good for both the university and Los Angeles.

Graphics:

Renderings and site plan from village.usc.edu

Avatar of Clement Lau About Clement Lau

Clement Lau, AICP, has 15 years of professional experience in urban and regional planning. Currently, Dr. Lau is a Departmental Facilities Planner with the Los Angeles County Department of Parks and Recreation. He enjoys writing about a variety of planning issues and is on the author panel for UrbDeZine. He also has published articles in the California Planning & Development Report, Public Works Management & Policy, and Progressive Planning. Dr. Lau previously worked for Los Angeles County's Department of Regional Planning and the consulting firm of Cotton/Bridges/Associates in Pasadena. He has guest lectured on public policy and urban planning topics at the University of Southern California and California State University, Northridge. He holds a doctorate and master's in urban planning from USC, and bachelor's in economics from the University of Hawaii at Manoa.