At 7 p.m. on Tuesday night in the Founders Room of the Galen Center, approximately 75 people from the University Park neighborhood gathered to talk about urban design guidelines for the community.
The crowd was composed of small business owners, USC faculty, community leaders and concerned residents. Despite their different backgrounds, all had something to say about USC’s multimillion-dollar plan to transform Jefferson Boulevard.
The public hearing was held by the City of Los Angeles Department of City Planning regarding the plan that aims to transform the area around USC into what the project’s website characterizes as “a vibrant, walkable mix of retail shops, restaurants, student housing and academic space that has long been needed.”
Community members spoke at a podium in front of two city planning representatives to voice their concerns.
Chief among their concerns was the allegation brought up by several community members that USC has reneged on its promise to extend the development of new bike lanes, street lights and trees to the area west of the campus from Vermont Avenue to Western Avenue.
This has, in turn, fed worries that USC is contributing to the disparity in quality between the university and the neighboring area, including those expressed by community leader and pastor Kevin Blue, who characterized the university as building a “buffer instead of a bridge.”
Blue, pastor of the local Church of the Redeemer, strode to the podium, his young son following him in a matching suit.
“It feels like a bait-and-switch,” he said, referring to the plan’s failure to include key improvements to the area that were allegedly promised to the community on May 10, 2012.
Blue reiterated his point: the community wanted the promised trees, lights and bike lanes.
“If you’re supportive of these measures, please stand,” Blue asked of the assembly.
The majority of the hearing’s attendees rose to their feet, smiling and murmuring among themselves.
“We have 256 signatures on an online petition,” Blue continued as the community stood behind him.
Citizen after citizen walked to the podium following Blue, each emphasizing USC’s need to develop the surrounding area.
“This is not a bridge,” 30-year resident of the neighborhood Thomas Florio said. “This is a wall.”
Florio pointed out that USC has long rejected calls to wall off the university campus since the 1980s, but that the new development project seemed to be a shift toward isolationism between the university and the community.
“Now, with this fenced-in, guarded community with a camera on every corner, I sometimes feel like a prisoner,” he said.
As residents such as Florio spoke, representatives from the city planning department lingered at the back of the conference room, many of them using their cell phones or chatting among themselves.
The effect that the community’s statements will have on the development agreement is unclear.
Senior City Planner Craig Weber said that planners will consider the remarks as they submit a recommendation on how bicycle traffic will be handled in the new plan.
But as far as altering the wording of the development agreement goes, Weber said that “ship already sailed.”
USC already has a contract with the city in which their obligation is to pay a set amount of specified funds before constructing their new buildings.
Community members, on the other hand, said that the funds were vaguely allocated and might never reach Western Avenue and Vermont Avenue.
Weber said that he did not hear the remarks from USC representatives that formed the basis of the supposed broken verbal agreement.
“All I know is that this is what our council adopted,” he said.
The planning commission is slated to adopt the plans in December, leaving the fate of the utilities still in question.
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