When Joël Perez walked into a meeting with the leaders of the project to expand the USC Health Sciences Campus, he was expecting a productive discussion where he would have the opportunity to voice his concerns. Instead Perez, the communications manager for Boyle Heights Building Healthy Communities, was greeted with PowerPoint presentations explaining the plans for increased construction and development, and he walked out feeling frustrated and unheard.
The expansion proposals include a new healthcare center to open in January 2018, along with a new campus hospital. New dorms, parking structures, a hotel and additional biotechnology labs are also expected to be added. The project is estimated to take 10 years or longer.
Cynthia Strathmann is the executive director of Strategic Actions for a Just Economy, a nonprofit that aims to combat gentrification and focuses on tenant rights, healthy housing and equitable development, according to the organization’s website. Strathmann said that the expansions would precipitate negative repercussions, disrupting and uprooting the lives of the community residents.
“What we have noticed about university expansions is that they can often lead to direct or indirect displacement of longtime standing residents if measures aren’t taken to ensure that this does not happen,” Strathmann said.
Thomas Jackiewicz, senior vice president and CEO of the USC Keck School of Medicine, explained that the developments would ultimately prove to be beneficial for the community in the long run, as the new structures would provide job opportunities and technological upgrades to the area.
“I always think the opportunity to create new job opportunities for the community is important,” Jackiewicz said. “I also think that when you add healthcare facilities in the community, you create access to and bring in state-of-the-art healthcare locally. It’s a real plus for the community. It’s really a local asset as well.”
Some members of the community surrounding HSC have disagreed with the planned expansions, fearing that the construction would accelerate the gentrification process. Members of the Boyle Heights community formed a Health Innovation Community Partnership in the hopes of increasing transparency and opening up a more direct line of communication with the USC project supervisors.
Perez, who participated in the HICP initiative, stressed the importance of including the community in negotiations in order to ensure that their interests would be not steamrolled by developers.
“The community needs to have a seat at the table,” Perez said. “They need to be meaningfully engaged with any proposed developments taking place. The voice of the community needs to be heard and considered.”
Strathmann emphasized that residents should be more assertive in assuring that they would be adequately compensated. The benefits of the expansions should ultimately outweigh the costs for the affected inhabitants.
“The community needs to feel entitled to make demands on developers,” Strathmann said. “If they’re going to benefit from developing that area, the tenants, residents, homeowners and business owners who have made that area vibrant and desirable must be able to share in the prosperity that comes with development.”
Jackiewicz vowed that the community would be closely involved in the process and that their needs and concerns would be taken into serious consideration, assuring that USC was endeavoring to keep open as many lines of communication as possible.
“We have community advisory committee meetings,” Jackiewicz said. “We meet with some of the community leaders here on campus and we have lunch with them. We talk about what our plans are and we try to get direct feedback from those folks as well.”
Perez, however, felt that the attempts made by USC were meager and that the community’s concerns were brushed off. He said that in many of these meetings, USC leaders dominated with prepared presentations, setting the tone immediately and leaving little room for discussion or compromise.
“They’ve had a few community gatherings that were not meaningful,” Perez said. “Presentations, a while back, and it felt like that was the checkmark for USC as far as, ‘Oh we’ve done our community engagement.’ There needs to be more dialogue. We need to be included.”
Jackiewicz said that the University had the community’s best interests in mind and believed that USC should be regarded as a member rather than an outsider.
“We’re working really closely with our community relations group to really hear the community,” Jackiewicz said. “We want to make sure that we hear the community, that we address their needs and bring the resources that we can to improve the lives of the people that live around us. We are part of this community.”
As the expansion plans progress, Perez hopes that USC will make an increased effort to listen to the community members as well as allow them to be more involved in the process.
“USC has not done a good job listening, and they haven’t done a good job being transparent,” Perez said. “It’s county land. It’s land that impacts this neighborhood. You need to reframe that. You need to listen to us.”