As USC expands its medical campus, neighborhood residents fight to have a say

Lupe Andrande, a longtime Boyle Heights resident, is wary of a cultural shift in the community she knows and loves as USC expands outward. (Hyesu Chung/Daily Trojan)

On a short walk through her neighborhood, Lupe Andrade can see multiple generations of the same family living just a few doors down from one another.

Many of her neighbors in Boyle Heights on L.A.’s Eastside have been her friends for over 40 years. She keeps her front and back doors unlocked 24 hours a day in case any neighborhood children need a warm meal or a place to stay.

As a paralegal and health clinic program manager, Andrade says she can afford to live elsewhere. A few years ago, she moved to some “really beautiful communities” — Rancho Cucamonga, Reseda, Beverly Hills.

But to her friends’ bewilderment, Andrade eventually decided to move back to Boyle Heights — a lower-income, historically Latinx neighborhood that has struggled with gang violence for decades.

Andrade says Boyle Heights is her home. But it’s one she’s afraid of losing to a 79-acre medical research center.

USC’s Health Sciences Campus, located seven miles away from University Park on the edge of Boyle Heights, has been a long contested presence in the surrounding community. Keck Hospital of USC treats low-income patients with subsidized health insurance while students attending the Keck School of Medicine drive up rents in the surrounding area, displacing longtime residents.

Now, the University’s efforts to expand the Health Sciences Campus are facing backlash. With plans for 70 new construction projects, Boyle Heights residents worry that they will lose the neighborhood they’ve lived in and loved for generations.

But in a community that has grappled with violence and instability, some hope that USC’s presence will bring positive changes without uprooting community members and diluting its culture and history.

“Boyle Heights has so much history, it’s beautiful the way it is,” said Monica Alcaraz, the president of Historic Highland Park Neighborhood Council. “To just really change it without really taking the community in consideration is a horrible thing to do.”

Diana Kruzman/Daily Trojan

Master plan

USC’s Health Sciences Campus is part of a larger complex of medical facilities in and around Boyle Heights that includes the L.A. County + USC Medical Center — a public hospital staffed by USC faculty.

The campus is home to the Keck School of Medicine, the School of Pharmacy, research facilities for the Ostrow School of Dentistry and various physical and occupational therapy programs. It also hosts two hospitals staffed by Keck faculty and students: the Keck Hospital of USC and the USC Norris Comprehensive Cancer Center and Hospital.

According to USC Land Use and Planning Executive Director Brian League, Keck aspires to become one of the top 20 medical schools in the country both in ranking and in National Institutes of Health funding. But to fulfill that goal, the campus must expand to accommodate new research programs.

“That NIH funding, that’s real money, and that goes to research, research goes to clinical trials, research goes to jobs, research goes to construction activities,” League said at a February meeting of the East Area Community Collaborative, a coalition of local interest groups brought together by USC’s Office of Civic Engagement. “To hold all that research, we need more space.”

Planning for the expansion began in December 2009, and the official USC Health Sciences Campus Master Plan was released in 2011. It calls for more than 3 million square feet of new development over the next 25 years, aiming to improve upon four main areas: education and research; clinics; amenities; and campus quality. Projects include a 200-room hotel, graduate student housing, a health care consultation center and streetscape beautification.

The Norris Healthcare Center opened in January 2018 and construction for the Hyatt House Hotel began in early January 2019. Campus beautification entails an ongoing project to create a more pedestrian-friendly environment by reconfiguring roadways, widening sidewalks and planting trees.

These changes are also part of a larger effort to develop the LA Bioscience Corridor, a hub for early-stage and established bioscience companies nestled between the Health Sciences Campus and Cal State LA.

Construction of additional 95-unit graduate student housing facility, which began in early March 2019, was not part of the original master plan in 2011.

“We never thought about building student housing in 2011 … [but] our students are commuting in, they can’t find any housing in the neighborhood,” League said at the East Area Community Collaborative meeting. “We don’t want to displace the neighborhood, so after this master plan, we changed course and we opened up student housing projects.”

To obtain land for the housing, League said that USC may need to make four additional acquisitions on Playground Street that would potentially displace residents, but the University has no desire to purchase any additional housing outside of Playground Street.

However, many residents are worried that they will be priced out, rather than bought out, of the community. With the median household income hovering at $43,519 in Central L.A. County, which includes Boyle Heights, and the number of people living below the poverty line nearly double the national average, residents are struggling to keep up with rising living costs in L.A.

Alcaraz said she’s already noticed an impact on the local population.

“The reality is that 80% of the people that are homeless in this area are from this area,” Alcaraz said. “I’ve seen my neighbors become homeless and I’ve housed them. It’s a real issue and a lot of it has to do with the rising rent with the developers that are coming in that are not from the area.”

Listen to “Growing Pains from the USC Health Sciences Master Plan” on Spreaker.

Eastside LEADS

To combat displacement, community members hope that USC will provide long-term job opportunities. Eastside LEADS — a coalition of 12 community groups in Boyle Heights, Lincoln Heights, El Sereno, City Terrace and East Los Angeles — has been working with USC and American Campus Communities, the contracted developer for the graduate student housing project, to establish immediate and long-term community benefits.

On Jan. 15, Eastside LEADS reached an agreement with both entities, which includes a $100,000 job training program, a 25% local hire rate within a three-mile radius of campus for construction jobs and an agreement to reserve at least 10% of the jobs for disadvantaged workers. The group plans to hold discussions with USC and ACC to ensure that the agreements are honored and their goals are achieved.

“We need to ensure that that meets and exceeds [the 25% goal],” said Pamela Agustin, lead organizer of Eastside LEADS. “We should work toward the community’s goal of 50% and that includes career opportunities for youth [and] for their parents. When we think about a 30-year master plan that the University has, then that’s a 30-year plan that supports the community’s wishes to remain and thrive here.”

This agreement only came to fruition after a six-month campaign by Eastside LEADS to challenge the development. After organizing numerous community meetings and surveys to gauge community needs and concerns, Eastside LEADS found that some of the residents’ top priorities were a pathway to family-sustaining jobs, the preservation and expansion of affordable housing and youth development. But above all, residents wanted transparency and to be included in the process,  Agustin said.

“We saw that USC is moving forward with its plans but not including the community in the process,” Agustin said. “We believe that residents must be informed about any development and investment vision in the community. They must be stewards of that information, meaning they must be part of the decision-making process.”

In June 2018, Eastside LEADS mobilized over 30 residents to attend a public hearing and challenge the development. Three months later, the group invited USC’s civic engagement team, as well as partners like El Sereno Historical Society and Boyle Heights Neighborhood Council, to present the details of the master plan and outline the changes to be made.

“That was the first time that residents … heard an official presentation from USC about its master plan,” Agustin said. “But it wasn’t because USC invited the community. Stakeholders like Eastside LEADS and other organizations came together to demand that presentation.”

After an Oct. 11 hearing, the LA City Planning Commision approved the project but recommended that USC improve engagement with the community moving forward. Since then, USC and ACC have worked with community members such as Eastside LEADS to develop policies to thwart displacement and increase opportunities for economic growth within the communities.

“We hope that moving forward, those meetings [between USC and community members] truly include a conversation around every development process that they have,” Agustin said. “We hope to see that they invite residents to be part and listen to that, but also, more importantly, to collect and hear how residents could benefit from these developments. To this point, that has not been part of the conversation.”

Construction for the Health Sciences Campus began in June 2018 and will continue over the next 25 years to add research facilities and increase campus beautification. (Hyesu Chung/Daily Trojan)

Community engagement

Beyond long-term job opportunities, many community members hope that USC will serve and engage its surrounding neighborhood more directly through other means.

“I think there’s a lot of potential to do a lot more but I don’t really see their outreach to the fullest that it can be,” Andrade said. “They need to reach out to key leaders … somebody who’s been there for 30-plus years and knows what the community needs. Going through these nonprofits is not going to work. They need to go into the community.”

To better understand the community and its needs, Andrade suggests that USC representatives walk through the area to familiarize themselves with the neighborhood and its residents. To have more regular communication, she proposes a monthly newsletter system outlining the newest development updates and community engagement opportunities, and suggests posting them in local stores and churches frequented by community members and sending them to community leaders for additional distribution.

“They have to give back [to the community],” said Vince Rosiles, an El Sereno resident and local business owner. “They need to embrace the need. We’re not in Beverly Hills, we’re not in Westwood, we’re in Boyle Heights, Lincoln Heights, El Sereno. Be aware of where you’re at and who you’re serving.”

However, many residents have already seen an improvement in communication with USC after Dulce Acosta, a Boyle Heights native and USC alumna, became the executive director of community partnerships for the USC Health Sciences Campus in May 2018. After Acosta came on board, she embarked on a listening tour to assess how USC could do a better job in outreach and communication with community members. Now, she attends over 30 meetings each month.

“When I first came on board, part of my listening tour … was to attend the neighborhood council meetings, community meetings and really ask the question: What is the best way to communicate to community members?” Acosta said. “If I talk to a senior group, they’re not going to have access to an email account, so I’m really meeting them where they are. Going to … spaces where they have their activities, and not just informing them, but asking them to provide the feedback as to what are the best practices.”

One of Acosta’s current initiatives is providing paid internships at the Health Sciences Campus to connect local community members enrolled in trade schools with mentors in their field.

“The goal is that it gets them into the internships. Not only do they get the on-site experience but they add something to their resume,” Acosta said. “In every community there’s limitations but if we take what’s already in our community and as a research institution we add to that, then I believe that that individual will have more assets than deficits and our community will as well.”

In addition to long-term projects, some community members want USC to extend daily benefits to the surrounding neighborhoods, such as granting access to gym and computer lab facilities, free after-hours parking at USC and street cleaning.

“If you drive by USC, their side of the street is immaculate and clean and well-manicured, and across the street is the neighborhood,” Rosiles said. “I’m not telling you to go into the depths into the neighborhood, but at least the near vicinity on the same block you share, you should have the same desire to keep that clean.”

By including community voices, many hope that the changes brought by USC’s expansion will benefit the community.

“If you talk to someone like my mother, like my family, that have really witnessed the impact of USC, they welcome change, and a lot of our community members welcome change — but of course, when we do it with dignity, when we do it ethically, and when we’re transparent,” Acosta said. “When we can come out and say, ‘Hey we didn’t know what were the best practices, but now we know,’ shame on us if we don’t practice them and implement them.”