For more than 30 years, Akm Alam has considered his business, Quik-Pix Photo Lab, to be a part of the USC community and the Trojan Family.
Two years ago, his photo printing store took up a small space in the old University Village, sandwiched between campus and the Row. The space was a home for Alam. He was friendly with the students who came in for passport pictures and professional head shots and loyal to the faculty members who returned to his store year after year. Working near USC provided him with many benefits — a safe location, a steady and predominantly wealthy clientele base. Being a part of the Trojan family helped Alam survive.
But the beginning of the new Village’s construction forced Alam to leave his old store behind. He spent several years preparing for the inevitable, until construction officially began in 2014. He had no choice but to move north to an even smaller space closer to the highway. Since then, business has only dwindled. Alam’s story is only one of the many local businesses who were forced to relocate to make room for the Village.
Finding a new home
Alam’s new store is tucked into a strip mall on Vermont Ave., a 12-minute walk north of campus. On a muggy April morning, he leaves the door hanging open. Inside, his space is cramped. A photo backdrop and lighting equipment take up the back half of the room behind the front counter. The front half is consumed with scattered chairs and shelves of camera equipment and picture frames.
He leans against the front counter as he explains, in a quiet and almost cheerful voice, that he has lost almost 80 percent of his business. That 80 percent has been lost in less than two years. Some of that is natural — he is running a photo printing business in an age where pictures are stored digitally, shared on social media and rarely put into print.
But his main drop in customers came when he was forced to leave his University Village location and find a new place to operate. There are many factors behind this change. Alam suspects that many of his former clientele aren’t even aware that he relocated rather than closing down. Now, his business mainly comes from the local area, a steep drop from his past days of serving faculty and students.
“It’s a completely different group of people that I get here now,” Alam said. “I miss the students, the faculty members. There were people who came to my store for years, people who I knew. Now there’s not as much [business] at all.”
Constructing a new image
The construction of the Village first began to affect local business owners in the area in 2010. At that time, all businesses in the area that is now in the process of becoming the Village were transitioned into month-to-month leases. But the greatest change came on May 1, 2014, when the businesses located in the space were forced to move out.
For chain restaurants that were previously located in the Village’s space, the transition was relatively simple. Businesses such as the Denny’s and Superior Grocers — which were in the former Village — had a wider range of options due to their status as a franchise. All employees were guaranteed jobs at other locations, which meant that none of those employees or managers had to worry about losing their jobs. The main inconvenience fell upon customers who no longer had the convenience of those stores close by.
But for locally- owned businesses, the transition was much different. According to USC Civic Engagement Senior Vice President Craig Keys, 17 of the 37 businesses removed from the Village space were non-franchise businesses. Though the label of “non-franchise” does not necessarily mean that a business is locally owned, most of these businesses were similar to Alam’s store.
From mom- and- pop convenience stores to a locally-owned hair salon that had been in the area for 40 years, these local businesses relied on their proximity to campus and USC clientele base in order to survive. The move away from campus did more than create a change in location for these businesses — it completely displaced them from the community in which they had grown and thrived.
The businesses in the area had known the move was coming since 2010. That was when their rents were switched to from year-long to month-by-month, and it signalled a new era for the local businesses. The University connected each of the businesses up- to- date on their rent to a real estate company in order to find a new location. This offer was extended to both franchise and non-franchise businesses, so that everyone involved had the opportunity to relocate.
The University also provided financial assistance for the relocation or closing of a business. According to Keys, most tenants received anywhere from $17,500 to $20,000 in assistance.
An uncertain future
Yet for business owners like Alam, the cost of relocating wasn’t the issue. With ample time to prepare, he found a space quickly, without the aid of the real estate agent. It’s just not the space he wants. With his store situated several blocks north of campus, and his clientele now mainly consisting of members of the community, he feels that he is beginning to lose a grip on his business.
Ideally, Alam would hope for his old space close to campus. However, this most likely won’t be a possibility. The new space will not be focused on retail, but rather on providing a living and community space for USC students. It aims to fulfill the need for a community living space for sophomore and transfer students, while simultaneously driving down the cost of student living by providing more housing options. The space is also expected to create a wider selection of businesses, community spaces and living spaces in order to diversify the space to create a vital new part of the community.
“The old University Village was a community- serving retail establishment which leased space to small business entities, but did not provide an environment or mix of amenities that could promote the success of the tenant businesses,” Keys said. “The new USC Village provides the amenities desired by the community in an environment that is better structured for the economic success of the retail tenants.”
This means, however, that there will be significantly less room for retail space. The Village spans more than 2 million square feet of space, but most of that space will be student housing. Retail space will only take up 160,000 square feet, a significant decrease from the amount that was afforded to businesses in the previous space.
One of the goals of the project is to create 12,000 new jobs through construction, but these jobs will only last on a temporary basis until the Village’s completion. The Village will also create permanent employment in the new establishments. However, most of these jobs will be focused in chain businesses or working in the residential halls. This means that there will be little to no space for local businesses to move back into the area. Keys does believe that some local businesses will be able to come into the space, but the expectations will be raised for the types of establishments that are welcomed into the community.
“The quality and relevance of the amenities and general environment intended for the new USC Village are substantially higher than that of the old University Village,” Keys said. “Consistent with the needs of the Uuniversity and community, we are seeking best-in-class tenants to populate our key food and beverage, retail and service locations. So while we will have several national brands, we will also have a variety of local and regional offerings.”
Alam, like many other local business owners, isn’t worried about a future with the Village — he’s simply trying to survive with what he has now.
His new store is smaller, and the rent is less expensive. He’s partnered with another photographer to start offering options such as event photography or senior portraits. Yet Alam admits that he sees no future for his business now. Without the access to his clientele base of students and faculty, he simply feels that his time has run out.
“In business, you always do what you can to keep going,” Alam said. “But this is not going to keep going. It just can’t.”