News And Politics

USC's $1 billion development plan is a 'David and Goliath battle,' says activist

July 24, 2012, 9:02 a.m.

USC's $1 billion development will include new student housing facilities and a renovated University Plaza. (Rendering: Elkus Manfredi Architects)

A $1 billion USC development planned for the neighborhood surrounding the private school's campus, includes plans to build new student housing, construct an updated retail center and create thousands of new jobs. But some area residents and activists say the school's plan doesn't take into consideration families who have lived in the area a long time.

"Instead of addressing poverty its displacing poverty," said Paulina Gonzales, Executive Director of Strategic Actions for a Just Economy (SAJE) -- a community organization that's involved in the USC redevelopment project.

Gonzales said that "thousands of families" will be impacted by USC's plans -- and not in a positive way. According to the 2010 census, there has been a 20 percent decrease of families in the area, said Gonzales, a shift she attributes largely to the lack of available affordable housing. She also said that in areas to the south and east of USC, there has been an influx of families, demonstrating a noticeable displacement of community members.

Elida Siguenza has been a neighbor of USC’s for 23 years, and a janitor at the university for just as long. She and her family pay 550 dollars for a one-bedroom apartment. But she says, many of her neighbors have already been pushed out. She says she’s not really concerned about protesting against her employer.

“What would really affect me is if our rent went up, even just a little bit. It’s happening all around us," Siguenza said. "Landlords are taking advantage of the demand for USC student housing to run long-term tenants out.”

Conflicts over low-income and student housing near the USC campus have been going on for over ten years. University spokespeople say its current redevelopment plans will address the housing needs of a growing student population, and 2 million dollars will be given back to the community for more low-income housing.

David Galaviz, executive director of local government relations at USC, says the development plans include creating 5,200 new student beds with the goal of reducing housing pressures in the neighborhood. He said the university will offer incentives to students to live in these housing complexes, as well as tying them into student aid packages -- further working to free up living accommodations in the surrounding area.

Galaviz said the school is "landlocked" though and limited in where it can expand.

"The only place we can really go is north," he said, referring to the museum-packed Exposition Park to the south, as well as a previous commitment the school not to build west of Vermont.

In addition to housing, USC has also said its project will create a total of 12,000 new jobs in the area; 8,000 permanent and 4,000 construction-related.

But Gonzales said that there's no guarantee these jobs will will be available or prioritized for local residents. She said that when downtown L.A.'s Staples Center was built, there was a 50 percent local hiring rule in place to ensure jobs were filled with area residents. She added that so far, the new USC development has nothing like that built into their plans.

Galaviz said that USC is working on developing a plan to ensure local hires are made. He said the university has already been in discussion with construction trades to employ local workers, and that the permanent positions in the new village retail center will depend largely on who the developer is.

USC's development known as The Village is the largest community redevelopment project in the history of South L.A., according to USC --- and is funded entirely by the university. Gonzales suggested that USC sit down with residents and stakeholders and discuss how to include and provide for the community in their development plans.

"It's completely possible for the university to do this redevelopment responsibly," she said.

Galaviz said over the past four and a half years, USC has held approximately 250 public meetings and open houses to gather feedback on the project. He said as a result of community feedback, the school has adjusted multiple plans including area landscaping, beautification techniques and graffiti abatement.

But for many residents and community advocates, these measures aren't enough. Residents and local groups say they will continue pressing members of the City Council to make sure USC’s plan includes provisions for local housing and jobs, as was required of other big development projects, like LA Live and Staples Center.

The Council is expected to weigh in on USC's development proposal as early as next week.

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