USC Village construction displaces many
Akm Alam has been going to work at the same place for over three decades: his Quik-Pix Photo & Digital Lab shop at the University Village. That will all come to an end on May 1, the date Alam will move out due to USC’s impending renovation of the University Village into the USC Village.
“It is heartbreaking,” Alam said. “I’ve been here 33 years. I’m the very oldest tenant, you could say.”
The move is a long time coming. Alam said that USC has put him on a month-to-month lease since 2010, making it hard for him to keep his shop running.
“It definitely killed our business,” he said. “Business you always have to look ahead.”
Though he used to have two employees, one full-time and one part-time, he could not keep them because of the uncertainty surrounding his lease. Other shops have closed up and moved out altogether, leaving the University Village a virtual ghost town.
That will change soon, however, as USC’s proposal to renovate the University Village, plans that have been in place since 2010, is finally on the brink of action.
USC has invested $1 billion into the reconstruction of the University Park campus. This USC Village project was approved in 2012 by the Los Angeles City Council and stands as the largest development of its kind in South Los Angeles history.
The new USC Village is expected to include more than 2 million square feet of retail, new student housing and academic space, according to the project’s website. The vast majority of this space will be dedicated to housing, while a much smaller portion will be retail space.
“I don’t think it will help the community, that’s my personal opinion,” Alam said. “Right now this is a completely commercial area … USC [Village] is only 160,000 square feet for retail. You can do the math.”
USC officials say the Village aims to serve the community while simultaneously increasing the quality of student life for USC students. According to a university press release, “the existing USC-owned regional shopping center … is dated, has limited retail offerings, and needs to be replaced.”
Current University Village business owners, such as Alam, employees and frequent customers, however, have taken the news of reconstruction with heavy hearts.
“It is what it is,” said Itzhak Mughaean, owner of Touch of Class, a hair salon, a business that is over 40 years old. “Of course I’m upset. But there is nothing I can do about it, USC owns the land.”
The uncertainty surrounding the University Village renovation during the last few years has plagued small businesses more than national retailer chains. Though Alam had to let his employees go, business chains such as Burger King, Denny’s and Superior can offer jobs to their employees at other locations in the area.
“Every one of our employees has been promised a position at another location,” said Jose Vargas, the manager at Superior Grocers. “The move is mostly inconvenient to the customers from the surrounding community who shop here frequently due [to] our low prices. A lot of students have also expressed their disappointment.”
Some employees discussed the negative impact USC’s decision could have on its students.
“We have customers that come in at the same time every morning. They are the ones being affected most,” said Daniel Alvarez, manager of Denny’s. “Most of the employees will be covered, but some will be left behind.”
Ingrid Virgin, an employee at Denny’s, grew sentimental at the thought of leaving University Village.
“This was my first job ever, and I ended up staying for nine years. I’ll be sad to see it go,” Virgin said. “Luckily my job is safe. That’s more than I can say for everyone here.”
One of USC’s project goals is to create 12,000 new jobs through the construction process and, more permanently, through employment in the new establishments, according to the press release. They have also promised to generate substantial tax revenue, which will give back to the community.
USC Civic Engagement senior vice president Craig Keys defended the University Village’s remodel and its potential effect on current business owners and their employees.
“The university has been working with Village tenants throughout this process to identify needs and concerns and to provide support services,” Keys said in an email to the Daily Trojan.
Keys also noted the positive effects the reconstruction would have on the university’s surrounding neighborhoods.
“Additionally, the university has committed to implementing a range of community benefit services that will enhance community access to local jobs, recreational opportunities, educational opportunities and professional services for many years to come,” Keys said in the email.
For business owners such as Alam, though, the changes have been hard. Alam is currently looking for a new place to relocate his business because he does not believe he will be able to return to University Village once it has become the USC Village.
“It wouldn’t be so bad if the university had promised that we could eventually return,” Alam said. “We have been here for so many years, you know? Everyone knows how good we all are. So why not give us some kind of preference?”