When the University announced the construction of the USC Village in 2011, it made no shortage of promises.
These promises included a range of student housing options to help address skyrocketing rents in the community, the creation of thousands of jobs for South Los Angeles residents and “a wide range of high-quality, affordable retail,” according to a University press release. “Student customer price points and community member custom prices points are an extremely good match.”
However, a State of the Neighborhood Report conducted by the University in 2015 estimated that about 47.3 percent of families with children in the University Park Campus area were living in poverty between 2008 and 2012 — close to double the overall rate for Los Angeles. Additionally, the rate of families in poverty in the UPC area has increased by 11.5 percent since 2000.
Moreover, an unsettling correlation exists between community displacement associated with USC-related ventures and poverty rates in the area, according to the same report. As the local population unaffiliated with USC has decreased due to displacement, the number of families facing economic and health issues has increased.
Despite these statistics, USC continues to expand into the surrounding community, with the renovated USC Village standing as the most recent example. Small businesses that originally set up shop in the old University Village are watching their storefronts be replaced with retail and corporate chains they believe many members of the community will struggle to afford.
Daisy Castro is the current office manager of Kravitz Optometry, which operated in the University Village from 1984 until its recent move to Figueroa Street in the University Gateway complex when renovations began.
“When I started at the [University] Village … it was like you’re living in a little old town,” said Castro, who has been working at the practice since 1986.
She recalled memories of a shopping center closely knit with its surrounding community and local family life — neighborhood caroling at the University Village around Christmastime, a costume contest for children on Halloween and an affordable and accessible grocery store called Market Superior.
“The Village was very involved with the neighbors, but when USC bought it, everything declined,” Castro said. “People who were there were raising prices, and the community was leaving. They left, and they got new people coming in … because of the price. USC was making those changes because they had a project in mind, they wanted everybody out so they could build what they just built now.”
She predicts that, with upcoming changes, locals will only steadily depart from an area that no longer serves their needs.
“I think that’s mainly designed for students, not the community,” Castro said of the shops and eateries coming to the USC Village this fall. “They [USC] want to have a better presentation from across the street from the University, to have something as pretty as we see now.”
In October 2012, the Daily Trojan reported that USC’s first USC Village proposal, the “Specific Plan,” did not include provisions for current tenants to have spots at the renovated Village. It was not until business owners pressured the University that it included an addendum, which required the University to negotiate with tenants and retain those in good standing prior to demolition.
According to USC’s Real Estate and Asset Management Department, at the time, of the 45 Village tenants not associated with USC, only Starbucks and Bank of America were able to negotiate their futures at the new USC Village. The other 43 tenants, unsure of their fate, had to shift to month-to-month leases in the time leading up to demolition.
This move toward month-to-month leases marked the beginning of an end for Magic Machine University Graphics, a print and copy store owned by Gery Zokai, who emigrated from Persia in 1987 and bought the store shortly after. Zokai’s son, Mike Zokai, remembers the emotional toll that the development took on his father.
“He was in a bit of a panic because he was losing his business, and the hard part about it was that after all the work he had put into it for the past 30 years, he wasn’t even able to sell the business,” Mike Zokai said. “At that point, with the changes, no one would look at the business anymore.”
According to Mike Zokai, his father moved Magic Machine University Graphics to different locations within the University Village several times after the month-to-month leases began, in hopes to stay open for as long as possible.
“All the businesses had closed down on that side of the mall, so there wasn’t any foot traffic,” Mike Zokai said. “So he thought if he were to move over there, he could at least get a little bit of the foot traffic and still maybe be able to sustain himself. But this was not the case, and it went totally the opposite.”
In addition to the addendum, University Village business owners in 2012 asked for right of first refusal, rent subsidies if they return and financial assistance for relocation. Some of these business owners told the Daily Trojan at the time that USC offered to provide experts in relocating businesses to help them with their moves.
Sean Keklikyan, owner of the Village Cobbler, said after he completed an application to return to the renovated USC Village, USC not only helped him find a place to set up shop in the interim, but also worked closely with him to make this a reality.
But some tenants say this was not their experience.
“I don’t think they [USC] helped relocate Dr. Kravitz — like I said, I’m the one who told him, ‘Let’s go and see these places if you like it, and you can move there,’” Castro said. “But no, nobody said to him, ‘Oh by the way, you can come here or move there,’ — no.”
Castro recalled meetings hosted by the University for former Village businesses about renovations. She remembers some of the business owners, whom she was very close to, telling her about talks to get their businesses to stay. But she could recall “no direct contact” between Kravitz and USC about the future of their business.
Mike Zokai said he vaguely remembers an offer by the University to relocate Magic Machine University Graphics into the new USC Village, but a combination of the increase in rent at the Village and the evolution of technology ultimately led to his father’s decision to close the shop permanently.
“Once you lose your customers it’s really hard to try and get them back,” Mike Zokai said. “And the new stuff they did at USC during that time, they established their own printing and copy centers, so anyone that used to go to [our shop] had no choice but to go to the other locations owned by USC. It didn’t make sense for him to reinvest in it because there wasn’t enough opportunity for him to reestablish himself in that arena.”
In response to relocation efforts, Steve Wesson, the USC Village ombudsman, told the Daily Trojan that the University took many steps to help retail tenants with relocation.
“Tenants in good standing received as much as $17,500 in direct financial assistance,” Wesson said in an email statement. “The University also helped qualifying tenants with lease negotiations and business plans. Retail tenants were given the opportunity to apply for space at USC Village, and three of those businesses returned to the site.”
Mike Zokai confirmed that the University did offer his father’s shop financial assistance, which amounted to less than $10,000. Compared to the business itself, which was worth a quarter of a million dollars at the time, according to Mike Zokai, the compensation was only equal to a few months’ worth of rent.
“For a company that had established itself for over 25 to 30 years, a few thousand dollars was kind of a slap in the face,” Zokai said. “They were like, ‘We’re only giving you one or two months to be able to sustain yourself, so find something.’ They didn’t really evaluate or calculate how the value of the business was going to change just because they decided to do some development. It was okay that they did it, but the compensation was not well-calculated.”
Stemming from concern for local small businesses and a neighboring community with considerable poverty rates, USC Village construction was originally met with disapproval from the Los Angeles City Council and many in the community. The University responded to these concerns with promises of $7 million in community benefits, $20 million in affordable housing by adding 3,000 additional student beds and the creation of 8,000 construction-related and 4,000 permanent jobs. USC also set up a job fair catered specifically to South Los Angeles residents, promising more than 30 percent of these jobs would be offered to members of the community.
However, despite these community benefits, many local tenants who owned businesses at the old University Village are still grappling with the effects of being displaced.
Mike Zokai’s father, for example, has been unable to find a steady job since Magic Machine University Graphics’ closing.
“He’s not really retired — he’s trying to find things here and there to do, but unfortunately because of age and technology, it’s been a little bit of a challenge for him to tap into anything,” Mike Zokai said. “It’s been a loss for him. It’s actually affected his health in a way, because of not being able to work and the pressure of not having the type of income he had.”
The renovation of the USC Village has served to exemplify the conflicting pressures to meet the needs of a growing university while addressing local poverty rates. USC’s transition from a commuter to a residential university over the past few decades has required more and more student housing and services, which have contributed to an increase rent prices and displacement of South L.A. residents.
In addition to higher poverty rates, this displacement has also negatively impacted community diversity and public health, especially within communities of color. A report published by the Human Impact Partners and Esperanza Community Housing Corporation in 2012 found the population of black and Latina/o residents around USC decreased by 20.3 percent and 15 percent, respectively, between 2000 and 2010, despite growing throughout other parts of Los Angeles.
In recent years, residents of the area surrounding UPC have been displaced faster and more often than residents in other L.A. areas, due to surging student demand for living closer to campus, according to the Human Impact report.
However, Keklikyan of the Village Cobbler looks forward to what he predicts will be a bright future for his shop, as he believes the new USC Village will bring his shop new customers.
“I’m happy with everything because it’s going to be safer, more modern, and I think this change is good,” Keklikyan said. “Since it’s a new shopping mall, new shops around us, new people will come, too.”
Meanwhile, Daisy Castro has a dim view of Kravitz Optometry’s current surroundings, which differ from the small, tightly knit community she spent the better part of the past 30 years working in.
“Now, it’s just traffic every day,” Castro said, describing what she sees outside on Figueroa Street — not the families and children and locals she used to see every day. “But I guess we’re more reachable now, just down the street from the school, because people see us more. There’s that.”
Although the USC Village’s opening has been highly-anticipated and well-covered in the news, Mike Zokai said it’s a topic his father tries to forget.
“At this point, I think he’s heartbroken … he hasn’t really gone to that area because it brought a lot of suffering for him,” Mike Zokai said.