USC Extorted by the City of Los Angeles

With California State Redevelopment Agency money gone, the city of Los Angeles ought to welcome new large-scale private development, and the economic stimulus and job creation it brings, with open arms. City Hall, faced with an anemic municipal budget, could also use the increased tax revenue. One such project that would help abate the city’s budget woes and create new jobs for the city is the University of Southern California’s proposed $1.1 billion “The Village at USC” project.

Surprisingly (or perhaps not), the city’s Planning and Land Use Management Committee delayed approval of the project for the second time last week, citing a need for more time to digest data regarding the project’s gentrifying effects on the surrounding community. The city is not fooling anyone – the delay amounts to nothing short of extortion – an attempt to ensure that committee members receive their proper concessions.

The site for “The Village at USC” is located directly north of the campus on University-owned land. Currently a dilapidated retail center, the new project calls 350,000 square feet of retail and will add up to 5,200 much needed student beds. The project would also create 12,000 new jobs for the city (8,000 permanent and 4,000 construction-related).

Comprehending the short-sightedness of delaying the project requires an understanding of USC’s role in its surrounding neighborhood (full disclosure: this writer is a graduate of USC). The university was founded in 1880, when LA was nothing more than a far outpost of western American expansion. Situated just 2 miles south of downtown, the city grew outward around the campus. Once an upscale neighborhood, the area immediately adjacent to USC lost its luster with the development of the city’s Westside, including Hollywood and Beverly Hills. Post WWII suburban expansion and the construction of the 110 and 10 freeways further eroded the area.

Today the area surrounding USC’s campus is racially and economically polarized. Part of LA’s notorious South Central (now more politically correct referred to as “South LA”), the area was hard hit by the riots of 1992. Yet while crime is still an issue, the area has markedly improved since the riots. Much of the improvement is thanks to a shift in the University’s relationship to its surrounding neighborhood post-1992. Rather than continuing to see itself as an island fortress in a sea of urban chaos, USC reached out to the local community, sponsoring programs for community members and supporting local businesses. The University’s extensive community outreach efforts led it to be named TIME magazine’s “University of the Year” in 2000.

As Los Angeles developed, USC had several opportunities to relocate its campus to other parts of the city and even Orange County, but its commitment to staying in the city’s center stood the test of time. The University is the largest private employer in Los Angeles and serves as a wellspring of knowledge and talent for the city. Given these contributions to LA, it is unfortunate and even appalling that the city’s Planning and Land Use Management Committee would question the University’s intentions and delay its plans to develop on land it owns with its own money (and without any handouts from the city or state).

Adam Nathaniel Mayer is an American architectural design professional. In addition to his job designing buildings he writes the China Urban Development Blog. Follow him on Twitter: @AdamNMayer.