Back in the 1960s, when a redevelopment plan was used to reshape the neighborhoods near USC and allow for expansion of its campus, some opponents called the plan a land grab that was aimed at "Negro removal--not urban renewal."
The remark still makes some associated with the university wince because it evokes a time when USC was seen as an elite enclave for rich kids in South-Central Los Angeles.
"I felt like I was trespassing," remembered Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Rudy Diaz, who grew up four blocks from the campus. "It was an unwelcoming place."
Today, campus administrators say, USC is a much better place. Its outreach programs--which range from offering tuition-free college education for eligible local students to a minority vendors' program benefiting local businesses and women--have turned skeptics like Diaz into ardent supporters. Diaz, for example, heads a university-wide community advisory council to help the school avoid public relations nightmares like the expansion of the 1960s.
Time magazine was so impressed that it cited the school's improved reputation in the 'hood as part of the reason for naming USC its 2000 college of the year.
However, area residents and merchants are getting nervous about their future, in view of USC's purchase last August of the University Village shopping center and its desire to build a new basketball arena for its teams in a parking lot across the street from campus.
A coalition of 15 area groups, representing hundreds of union members, churchgoers and ministers, residents and community activists, say the plans represent a move by USC to expand its campus, raising fears that area residents may be uprooted and small merchants could be forced out.
Members of the Figueroa Corridor Coalition for Economic Justice say that a repeat of the 1960s should be avoided, and that any move to expand must have close public scrutiny. The city's Community Redevelopment Agency must sign off because the areas involved are part of a redevelopment area around Hoover Street. And coalition members want the university to make a full public accounting to the agency.
"The reality is," said Father Warner R. Traynham, the rector of St. John's Episcopal Church and a coalition member, "there are people in the community who are concerned about USC and the moves it's making."
Campus administrators say it's much too early to suggest that USC will expand its small, 155-acre campus, noting that it occupies much less space than UCLA and other West Coast universities. They insist that there are no plans to expand, though the university does maintain space for some programs off campus.
At a redevelopment advisory meeting Thursday night, campus officials sought to allay the fears by talking about various ways USC could expand on campus over the next 25 years. It could, for example, eliminate outdated buildings and replace them with four-story structures that could result in a 38% increase in square footage on campus.
In rejecting the criticism from the coalition, officials noted that at least one group within the coalition, Local 11 of the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees Union, was engaged in a labor dispute last year against the university.
Giving Jitters to the Neighbors
School officials also recalled how the university showed its commitment to the neighborhood when it decided to stay at the South-Central site where it was founded in 1880.
"We want to work with the community to create a wonderful place to live and work in," said Jane G. Pisano, USC's senior vice president for external relations.
The recent moves by USC that have sent jitters through the surrounding neighborhoods are:
* Tentative plans by the university to build a $70-million special events center, home for USC's men's and women's basketball and volleyball teams. Other campus activities, such as commencement, also would be held there.
USC officials say they need a new facility because the Sports Arena is old and doesn't attract fans. The preferred site for the new arena is a campus parking lot at the southeast corner of Figueroa Street and Jefferson Boulevard. Although nearly $25 million has been raised so far, there has been no final decision on construction or the site.
* USC's purchase last August of the University Village shopping center, which is north of Jefferson between Hoover Street and McClintock Avenue, for $25 million. Built in the late 1960s, the suburban-style retail and office complex was to be the new home of merchants displaced by the Hoover redevelopment project when the campus expanded to its current boundaries of Jefferson on the north and Vermont Avenue on the west.
However, the shopping center has fallen on hard times and the university, without warning, purchased it to save it from bankruptcy. The university occupies the office space, and critics say merchants could be forced out to make way for new campus buildings.
USC officials hotly deny that, saying their goal is to make the shopping profitable. To that end, they are offering new leases to many of the shopping center's tenants.
* The university's ownership of an estimated 60 parcels in an area dubbed North University Park, bounded by Adams Boulevard on the north, Figueroa on the east, Jefferson on the south and Hoover on the west. Many of USC's students, including members of fraternities and sororities, live there. Although the university says it has no plans in the area, coalition members say it's a location ripe for university-related construction.
Disputes over the proposed arena and the shopping center underscore the mistrust and uncertainty that have surfaced in the ongoing relationship between campus officials and the coalition.
Beginning in 1990, the university has purchased three parcels across the street from the Felix Chevrolet dealership. It paid $15.5 million for one parcel in 1990 from Nick Shammas, Felix's owner and one of the largest landowners on Figueroa. It paid $2.1 million to the Gertmenian Trust for one parcel in 1990 and $2.3 million to the CRA for another in 1995.
Knowing that the CRA must be kept apprised of the land's use, members of the coalition sought a meeting last year to find out what USC planned for the property. Some had heard the buzz about a new home for the basketball teams.
Gilda Haas, director of one community group, asked, "What's the public interest" in a new arena for a private institution like USC?
Thomas H. Moran, USC's vice president for business affairs, said many community events, including area high school graduation ceremonies, school plays and other community-related events, could be staged there.
According to several coalition members, Moran said USC had no plans to expand beyond its current campus boundaries. Any expansion was likely to be in the form of new, taller structures.
He said he would provide information, when available, on a parking lot site for the arena. Overall, the parking lot totals 4 1/2 acres.
Several weeks later, angry coalition members read about the arena development in The Times' sports section, making it seem to them that the arena was a done deal. Some accused Moran of misleading them.
Traynham, the rector at St. John's, said, "It looked . . . like Moran sold us a bill of goods."
The Rev. Altagracia Perez, pastor of the Episcopal Church of St. Philip the Evangelist who also attended the meeting, added, "I don't believe what USC says. It continues to expand."
In an interview in his campus office, Moran denied that he misled anyone. "I think they're wrong," he said.
Pisano, USC's senior vice president for external relations, reiterated the university's position that no final decision has been made, noting that the proposed arena represents "the hopes and dreams" of Athletic Director Mike Garrett and others.
Trying to Reassure Local Merchants
Regarding the shopping center, university officials say they have been scurrying to stamp out rumors about what USC might ultimately do there. "I run into a different rumor every day," one USC official said at the redevelopment advisory meeting Thursday night.
Facing a crowd of anxious shopping center merchants, Moran and other USC officials tried to reassure them that the university wants a viable commercial center and would likely offer new leases to many of them, noting that one lease will last until 2029. Pizza shop owner Mulu Belayhun, after presenting petitions from customers saying they wanted her shop to remain in the center's food court, was told that her lease would be renewed.
Others received similar commitments.
But some weren't mollified. The owner of a University Village arcade was told that his lease, which expires Dec. 31, would not be renewed. "I think they're afraid that shootings might happen there, but we've had no problems," said arcade owner Cherine Medawar.
Brian C. Tabor, vice president of Flagship Theatres, which operates three movie screens at the shopping center, said his company would like to add five screens there but that USC hasn't shown any interest.
He also wondered about USC's use of office space in the shopping center, saying that might turn off customers.
In the working-class neighborhoods near the university, where Latinos have supplanted blacks as the area's majority, some seem unaware of USC's moves. "I haven't heard anything," said shopper Berta Morales as she emerged the other day from the 32nd Street Market, a mainstay of the University Village shopping center.
"I would worry if this market closes," said her friend Luisa Ramirez. When told that university officials have pledged to honor the market's lease, which is good for another 10 years, Ramirez said, "That's good to know. This is a good market."
USC has some community support.
Juanita Judice said she gives the university the benefit of the doubt after having heard both sides of the dispute. "I can't be on both sides," said Judice, who has lived near USC for nearly 50 years. "They are trying to do a lot of good for the community. It's wonderful."
"Years ago, USC wasn't all that involved in the community," said Norma Washington, who has lived on 36th Street for 38 years. "Now, they're offering to help people, help them buy homes. I do believe they're doing positive things."
Howard Lappin, a UCLA alumnus who is principal of the Foshay Learning Center, one of five area schools adopted by USC for various programs and tutoring, added: "I say this as a Bruin. . . . I have never seen an institution so involved with the schools in its communities as USC."
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USC Land Plans
A group calling itself the Figueroa Corridor Coalition for Economic Justice is critical of recent moves by USC because they could result in the demolition of homes and business. University officials deny the assertion, saying they will act in consultation with area residents and the proper authorities.