New cardinal and gold flower beds, lampposts and a beautiful fountain are evidence of another season of successful summer construction at USC. One of the university’s upcoming projects, however, has come to a screeching halt.
This project is the redevelopment of the University Village shopping center — the biggest phase of the University’s 30-year Master Plan.
Since its beginnings in 2006, the Master Plan has advanced in leaps and bounds, with a rallying cry of eager USC students at its back. But when the Planning and Land Use Management Committee of the Los Angeles City Council put the project on hold last Tuesday, a voice less heard at USC— the surrounding community — was recognized at last.
The Village at USC, as the project is officially known, has always presented itself first to residents of the surrounding area and second to the student body. Students are easy to please; they have little reason to protest expanded dining and retail options. The community, however, is trickier.
The home page of the project’s website is entirely geared toward community members, promising neighborhood beautification, 12,000 jobs (4,000 construction-related and 8,000 permanent), a shiny new shopping experience and the substantial freeing up of low-income housing for community residents. The website even supplies project information in Spanish.
But aesthetic improvements won’t matter if the overwhelming student presence in the Village leaves the community feeling marginalized. And the majority of the 8,000 jobs that USC says are actually permanent won’t necessarily be for local residents. Though the website cheerily suggests, “You or a family member may even work on the construction of the Village,” it says nothing about potential employment with the Village’s future tenants.
This betrays our developers’ sneaky approach to the local community: Appease them about the project, but don’t actually include them in it. Tell them they can help build it, but conveniently forget to promise them a place in the permanent Village. Putting the project on hold opens up a crucial opportunity for the university to move past superficial promises to genuine inclusion of the community.
This approach finally hit a wall with the issue of low-income housing. While USC has consistently pitched the Village at USC as a creative solution to keep students from overtaking neighborhood housing and has offered an additional $2 million dollar contribution to support low-income housing in the area, community groups protested that this was a far too liberal assessment of the plan’s potential for success.
Representatives from United Neighbors In Defense Against Displacement (UNIDAD), a coalition of community, labor and faith groups, told the City Council’s panel last Tuesday that they believed USC students would continue to live in the neighborhood’s low-income units and that a more reasonable contribution for housing development would be $20 million.
UNIDAD’s concerns are well founded and need to be heard. According to U.S. News and World Report, 59 percent of USC students live in off-campus housing that is unaffiliated with the university. It is doubtful the Village would cause such an immediate shift in student housing preferences as to fill all 5,200 promised beds in the first year of operation.
One must also consider the type of student the Village housing will attract. It’s likely that the students who move into the Village will be those who already live in expensive and cloistered apartment complexes, like University Gateway or the new Icon Plaza — not the students who live in low-income units, who are comfortable among local residents and want to save on rent.
That USC hasn’t addressed these particular problems in its development planning shows the university has not thought the Village through from a community perspective. Perhaps the stonewalling of a $1.1 billion project is just what we need to ensure the local voice on the UV is finally heard.
Francesca Bessey is a sophomore majoring in narrative studies and international relations. Her column, “Open Campus,” runs Wednesdays.