The Village at USC project might have cleared its final major hurdle last Wednesday when it was officially approved by a Los Angeles City Council committee. The University Village redevelopment project, however, still represents the bare minimum effort put forward by the university to accommodate community interests.
At a public hearing last August, the City Council’s Planning and Land Use Management Committee put USC’s plan to redevelop the aging University Village on hold, claiming the university had not made the requisite considerations of community needs regarding the project. This decision resulted from testimony given by community groups that argued The Village would not be able to fulfill a promise to keep students out of low-income housing units that local residents need.
Wednesday’s hearing represented a compromise between the university and community groups. USC received the go-ahead from the committee, provided it up its previous commitment of $2 million in low-income housing subsidies for the neighborhood to a more realistic $20 million. The agreement also includes the creation of a legal clinic at the USC Gould School for Law to help solve tenant-landlord disputes and a provision that gives hiring priority to local residents.
This agreement, however, only addresses the concerns for which the council made the most noise. Since the council did not adequately represent all of the community’s needs, the agreement does not either.
The plan entirely overlooks the protection of local small business interests that community groups specifically petitioned both the council and Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa for in the weeks leading up to Wednesday’s hearing.
As reported by the Daily Trojan, approximately one dozen current UV tenants voiced concerns at the hearing over the future of their businesses. Among them was 22-year-old Wendy’s franchise owner Ketan Sharma who, like all of his fellow business-owners, has received no guarantee from the university that he will be able to keep his business, or that he will be compensated in the event he cannot.
“The only guarantee is that they will talk before demolition,” Sharma said on Oct. 10. “This keeps me awake at night.”
The consequences of this disregard for local businesses could be catastrophic for the community. Not only will it potentially ruin business owners, like Sharma, but it will also cost the employees of these businesses their jobs. Though The Village might offer them future employment opportunities, USC is offering no assistance plan for displaced workers in the meantime. For low-income families living paycheck to paycheck, two years of unemployment could mean the loss of their homes.
The permanent loss of these businesses will also have detrimental effects on the local residents who are their primary customers. Superior Grocers, for example, offers community members affordable produce as well as particular spices, herbs, baked goods and ethnic foods geared toward the neighborhood’s Latino population.
Superior, however, doesn’t seem to fit with The Village’s flashy, upper-middle class and student-centric theme, and with the no-guarantees policy for current tenants, it doesn’t seem likely the loyal grocer will be returning.
Los Angeles already has a chronic problem with providing lower-income families access to affordable healthy food. Replacing Superior with a more expensive store like Trader Joe’s (as rumor has it) would only exacerbate this problem. Thrifty and lower-income students will also suffer, either from having to buy produce that can be up to five times as expensive at stores like Ralph’s or subsisting on an unhealthier diet of cheap food.
Renovating the UV and expanding student housing does not necessitate the replacement of local businesses with more expensive, more exclusive venues. In fact, The Village’s space-efficient layout can allow for the retention of the old businesses while still leaving room for new retail and dining options.
The UV redevelopment project doesn’t have to damage the community. But unless USC provides local businesses with guaranteed continuance of their tenancy and implements measures to tide over their employees and customers in the interim, The Village at USC will hurt many locals, and a general resentment of university development will resonate in the community for years to come.
Francesca Bessey is a sophomore majoring in narrative studies and international relations. Her column “Open Campus” runs Wednesdays.