New USC Village looks to address housing concerns

With the USC Village, the most expansive development project in the history of South Los Angeles, currently underway, the USC Alumni Real Estate Network discussed how the project will address the university’s growing need for residential housing.

AREN’s “Digging Deeper: A Real Estate Industry Look at USC Village,” event, held last Tuesday evening, gave the latest updates on the USC village and explored the project from a real estate industry perspective.

The event featured Laurie Stone, associate senior vice president for Real Estate and Asset Management at USC.  Stone kicked off the discussion by presenting the updated facts on USC’s real estate.  USC is currently comprised of two campuses: the University Park campus, set on about 292 acres, and the Health Sciences campus, which spans about 80 acres.

Stone also mentioned how USC is a huge economic driver for the city and the county. In 2008, students spent $503 million on goods and services and USC’s wage and payroll expenditures totaled $1 billion.

This economic impact has helped USC’s campus grow dramatically. One of the most important changes is that it has become a residential campus. No longer are students only coming in from Los Angeles, but many are coming from other states and even abroad.

“Now instead of students driving in on a daily basis, they are here living in the community,” Stone said. “One of the issues that that has been raised is that the university hadn’t built housing to accommodate that changing demographic in terms of students living close to campus.”

The USC Village aims to improve this housing situation at USC.

The process to getting the Village built was not an easy or quick one,” Stone said. “It was frankly a fairly painful process … This is something that has been in the works for a number of years.”

The project started off with a four-year planning process that was first internal to the campus. Faculty, staff and students were asked to identify what the needs for the campus were. Then, the university took that information and reached out to the community to understand what their interests were and how the university could interact with them.

Finally, they involved the city elected officials and government city departments to get the development going. The final plan allowed them to develop more than 5 million square feet over the course of the next 20 to 25 years, the majority of that being focused in the USC Village.

In order to be able to implement the plan, the university had to move into a public process with the city.  Three key documents had to be drafted: an environmental impact report, a plan for a public benefit package and a University Park specific plan that set forth the rules on how to develop the campus and the property around it.

In order to make sure that it moved forward, a development agreement was drafted between the university and the City of Los Angeles.

“[The City of Los Angeles] would vest our right to develop the campus and the areas around it … And in exchange for vesting that right, we agreed to a very significant community benefits package,” Stone said.

The package included direct payments to the City of Los Angeles and a series of indirect benefits including the construction of a new fire station, a full service grocery store in a new retail development and various community assistance programs, among others.

The Real Estate and Asset Management department faced several challenges when getting the project approved.  First, the historic fire station that was in place had to be demolished in order to go forth with the construction plan. This only happened after a complicated agreement with the City of Los Angeles in which USC promised to keep the historic parts of the fire station on site and rebuild another one offsite. Additionally, changes in design and architecture were a challenge that required years of submittals to the planning departments.

Finally, there was the issue of retail in a campus setting.  Since the Village will be a secure sight with gates, retailers will have to rely only on university business after public hours. Because it is a university project with only 12 percent of space allocated for retail, decisions were made for the housing plans that are not necessarily ideal for the retail space below.

When completed, USC Village will have nine new buildings totaling more than 1.25 million square feet that will include 466 parking spaces onsite, sit-down restaurants, a Trader Joe’s grocery store, a Bank of America, a bike shop, a Starbucks and other retailers.  With 2,700 new student beds, the village will give USC the ability to guarantee undergraduates housing for all four years and will open up spaces in other housing projects around campus for graduate students.

USC Village is expected to open in the fall of 2017.