The Isolated Fortress of USC

A rendering of USC's proposed new "town square" in its University Park redevelopment plan

To hear the wildly divergent reactions among neighbors to the University of Southern California's long-brewing and massive $900 million, 5 million-square-foot University Park redevelopment plan, an outsider might think there are two USCs.

One USC is the generous provider of jobs and education programs and full scholarships to qualifying kids in the mostly minority, South Los Angeles neighborhood that surrounds the elite private school.

Then there's the other USC, a developer and economic powerhouse that has dictated terms to neighbors, broken promises and forced families from their homes.

The contradictions were cast in tragic relief in April, when two Chinese USC grad students who lived on the "wrong" side of Vermont Avenue — seeking the much cheaper rents there — were slain.

Sandra McNeil, executive president of Trust South L.A., a nonprofit that promotes housing, health care and job placement, lives not too far from where Ming Qu and Ying Wu, both 23, were gunned down. "My housemate heard the shots that night," she says. "The next morning, walking my kids to school, the cops were all over the place."

Trust South L.A. has joined a bigger area coalition called UNIDAD — United Neighbors in Defense Against Displacement — pushing USC to address broader problems. McNeil found it telling that after the murders, "They had the police and the security guards sent out, and they had a security guard ... at the site of the crime scene.

"But it's not about sending out the police to jack up the kids in the neighborhood. It's about making sure that kids in the neighborhood have summer jobs. ... It's about encouraging stable neighborhoods."

Former city planner Dick Platkin says USC, by continually failing to provide "adequate student housing, forced students to spread out over a large, risky area."

Platkin has done some free consulting for a local group and says, "USC's solution is to hire more cops, not to address the housing shortage and resulting gentrification."

Weeks before the two murders that horrified Los Angeles and made headlines in China, neighbors met at a city-sponsored discussion of USC's proposal. The meeting unveiled a wide gulf that could create hurdles as university leaders push forward.

At the meeting, neighbor Ruth Molina said a USC Upward Bound program helped her in high school. Molina urged residents to get behind the university. "We should be fighting education cuts, not USC," she said.

But Maria Elana Rivas, speaking in Spanish through a translator, expressed anxiety. She wants university leaders to communicate — not inform neighbors top-down.

Father Bill Delaney, of St. Agnes Church on Vermont, isn't opposed to USC's vision but wants its leaders to get serious about the destabilizing outflow of working-class families. "In the last 10 years, we've lost 1,000 families from our church. That's 5,000 people who have left the neighborhood."

USC has promised that the largest development effort in decades to hit South L.A. will be all to the good, creating 12,000 jobs and adding affordable student housing.

USC would raze and rebuild its most politically awkward asset — the University Village shopping center, just off campus, which USC has let become a tired, isolated business district. On campus, USC would construct housing for 4,200 more students, plus a hotel and conference center.

The plan is backed by the staff of the L.A. Planning Commission and is scheduled to be discussed May 10 at the commission.

With the Grove's superstar developer, Rick Caruso, sitting on USC's 55-member board of trustees, the university appears to envision a Grove-style mall. Demolition of University Village wouldn't force out any homeowners or landowners, in great contrast to the hated eminent domain wielded years ago by the Los Angeles Community Redevelopment Agency.

"It's going to make this neighborhood much more vital," says Tom Sayles, senior vice president for university relations. "The kind of retail we want to bring in will serve those in the USC community, as well as those in the surrounding community."

But critics say it seems more like Westwood on the Eastside.

Gentrification in Hollywood in the past decade has forced out thousands of working-class Latinos, a trend identified by the 2010 U.S. Census, even as politicians such as City Councilmen Eric Garcetti and Tom LaBonge extolled redevelopment as a plus for all. Hollywood has seen a drastic population drop of 15,000 in a decade.

USC neighbors, 90 percent of whom are renters, many Latino, fear they could be next. Further, if L.A.'s redevelopment history is a fair guide, they worry most of the 12,000 jobs will go to commuters, not to locals, regardless of promises to "hire locally." Delaney and others also say Metro's new Expo Line on the south edge of USC will further drive up rents, as fixed-rail projects tend to do, by inviting in land speculators.

David Robinson of Strategic Actions for a Just Economy is part of the UNIDAD coalition. He says that unless Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, City Council members and university leaders talk much more honestly about the negative aspects of gentrification, the neighborhood depicted in USC's renderings may not include the people who have tried to create a community there.

In fact, USC has held many meetings to get feedback. And Strategic Actions for a Just Economy was placed on an advisory group. But, Robinson scoffs, "every bit of criticism or positive suggestion on how to improve the plan has been brushed aside."

He says the solution is for the "two USCs" to get together.

"If they didn't divorce their academic mission from their real estate development, they could do the kind of planning that would allow the university to grow and to help the community grow as well," he says.

Nona Randois, an attorney who represents groups in UNIDAD, says USC is "not taking responsibility for the impacts of this very large development ... as we would require of anyone developing a similar project. Although they are paying lip service to the need for local hiring and affordable housing, there is nothing enforceable."

And for some, USC's colorful drawings evoke bitter memories of the 1980s urban renewal by Mayor Tom Bradley known as the Hoover Redevelopment Project.

In that era, amidst bloody gang violence, open dealing of hard drugs and the resulting decay, USC threatened to leave the area. In an ugly battle, the redevelopment agency, Bradley and City Council embraced eminent domain — and leveled private homes. The neighborhood benefits were never as clear as the economic benefits to USC.

McNeil says USC's tone-deaf attitude after the slayings of Qu and Wu is a reminder of what the groups face in convincing USC to collaborate with residents. "It's about a real partnership where USC listens," he says. "It's about real economic development."

Reach the writer at

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