USC plans $900-million shopping and residential upgrade


USC says it wants what many other big city universities have: an attractive, lively place next to campus for students and faculty to shop, dine, watch movies and just hang out.

In what is described as the most ambitious construction project in South Los Angeles in a generation, the university plans to replace an outdated shopping center with a retail, cinema and hotel complex that would also include dorms for about 5,000 students.

The $900-million project, just across West Jefferson Boulevard from USC’s traditional northern boundary, is aimed partly at relieving pressure on private housing in the neighborhood, which has led to displacement of low-income families and conflicts over parking and student parties.

Many neighbors say they would welcome the proposed housing and improved shopping venues but worry that the new retail could be too upscale for the area. Many also are concerned about increased traffic on the narrow side streets of North University Park. And some landlords who cater to USC students say they fear the change will harm their often lucrative rental businesses.

Kristina Raspe, USC’s associate senior vice president for real estate, described the planned 35-acre USC Village, just north of Jefferson and west of South Hoover Street, as “a transformational project.”

Raspe pointed to a trend across the country of colleges helping to develop Westwood Village-like areas with restaurants, bookstores, coffee shops and supermarkets. “We are the only campus of our size and stature that doesn’t have those kind of amenities directly adjacent to the campus,” she said.

A draft environmental study recently gave a positive review of the plan, which includes 350,000 square feet of commercial space above pedestrian plazas. It now faces other city studies and permit hurdles that could take two years. USC then hopes to break ground on the first phase: a $400-million replacement for the current low-rise shopping center owned by the university.

The complex is expected to include a six-screen movie theater, many stores, a 2,000-car garage and a faculty office building; much of it would be topped by four or five stories of dorms containing about 1,800 beds.

It is being designed in USC’s signature Mediterranean style by the Boston-based architecture firm Elkus Manfredi, which worked on the Grove and the Americana outdoor malls in Los Angeles and Glendale, and on campus buildings at Harvard University and other schools.

Subsequent stages would demolish student-occupied apartments USC owns north of Jefferson closer to Vermont Avenue, replacing them with mid-rise housing for about 3,000 students, 250 faculty apartments and a 150-room hotel. And Jefferson Boulevard may be narrowed, eliminating parking lanes and widening sidewalks to discourage freeway-bound traffic.

For the last 20 years, USC has reached out to its neighborhood, aiding local schools and providing security patrols, to help shed an image of a rich school that ignored what went on outside its gates. Some mutual town-gown suspicions remain, however, and the new proposal’s scale and lack of low-income housing for non-USC residents have raised concerns.

One community group, United Neighbors in Defense Against Displacement, sees benefits in the new jobs and better shopping the plan promises. But the group, which works to keep families and small businesses in the area, is skeptical that the new student housing will stop gentrification, according to lead community organizer Gabriela Garcia.

The group, which has not taken a formal position on the USC plan, wants to ensure that the complex is designed in a way that feels inviting to local residents and includes independent stores with affordable merchandise, she said.

“No one is against students, but we also need to preserve the stability of our neighborhood and be sure families will be able to stay here and enjoy the redevelopment,” she said.

The current low-rise University Village shopping center has a busy supermarket and food court, along with a Denny’s, Starbucks, a cinema and other services but also has some vacancies. Merchants complain that USC has done little lately to promote or maintain it and they worry they could be priced out by higher rents at the new center.

Rosy Mughadam, who owns two hair salons in the complex, said she fears that USC “won’t want little businesses like us, they will only want franchises.”

University officials insist, though, that they want local and national stores alike, including a large supermarket and such services as shoe repairs and hair stylists, with prices affordable to students and area residents. The plan assumes that about half the business would come from people not affiliated with USC, Raspe said. (USC has not decided whether to finance the project itself through bonds or to partner with a developer.)

“I know we have the image of having these high-end Prada-shopping students. But frankly, we don’t have enough of those to support a single retailer at that level. Sixty percent of our students are on financial aid,” she said.

USC officials have toured similar projects around the country. They say they have been especially impressed with the University of Pennsylvania’s success in bringing shops and housing to nearby low-income areas of West Philadelphia and its ability to help reduce crime there over the last 15 years.

Experts say USC is late in joining a national trend of urban universities becoming active in developing shopping and entertainment areas near campus. Such upgrades in retail and housing can also make a difference in the competition for students and faculty, many of whom look for good cinemas and bike stores, as well as classrooms and labs, they said.

More colleges “are fulfilling a responsibility to provide better services for students, whether in housing or retail opportunities. At the same time, universities are fulfilling a responsibility for developing an area around the university,” said Sal Rinella, a consultant who is past president of the Society for College and University Planning.

The schools seek the flavor of UCLA’s Westwood, with enough neighborhood engagement “so it doesn’t feel like a kind of takeover,” he said.

Los Angeles City Councilman Bernard C. Parks supports the plan, which he and other officials said would be the largest commercial development in a generation in his district and all of South Los Angeles. Parks said he expects the USC project and the 1,600-bed University Gateway, a privately run complex opening this fall at Figueroa Street and Jefferson Boulevard, to ease community complaints by bringing student residences closer to campus.

Private landlords in the area will see student demand drop, predicted Jerry Busch, an owner of the North University Park Property Management, which rents apartments to USC students. Although the university emphasizes its goal of improving the neighborhood, Busch said USC also has a financial motive in competing with firms like his.

USC leaders “are doing a natural thing,” he said. “They see a healthy place to make a profit.”