The University of Southern California has long been criticized for being an inward-looking institution, one that insulates itself from the surrounding neighborhoods of South Los Angeles.

Its new expansion project, USC Village, is hailed for changing that. The 15-acre, $700 million housing and retail development brings a Trader Joe's to South L.A. for the first time, as well as a Target, with many other businesses (15 restaurants and nearly as many shops) to come — and with them, jobs. A recent New York Times piece lavished praise upon the development, which has its official groundbreaking on Saturday, saying the project “brings together one of California’s poorest areas and one of its wealthiest universities.”

Indeed, as part of the project, the university contributed $20 million to the city's affordable housing trust fund, replaced a displaced fire station with a brand-new one (at a cost of $16 million, paid for by USC) and promised to use at least 30 percent local hires for both its construction and permanent retail jobs.

Those commitments weren't simply handed out freely by the university, says Joe Donlin, director of equitable development at Strategic Actions for a Just Economy, or SAJE. Rather, they were promises extracted by a coalition of community groups during the project's planning phase.

“There hasn’t been due credit given to the community that really fought for investments that the university agreed to,” Donlin says.

As for the development itself, Shawn Simons, a former neighborhood council member in the area who served on an advisory board for the project, says it doesn't go as far as it could to be inclusive.

“From my perspective, it really doesn’t have anything that was discussed from a community benefits aspect,” says Simons, who was part of a community advisory board convened by the university during the project's planning stages. “It really does feel like an offshoot of the campus. It is a monolith of student housing.”

Back in the late 1990s, University Village, which was purchased by USC in 1999, was a drab, beat-up shopping mall. It had ample outdoor parking, a Denny's, a multiplex, a Starbucks, a Superior Grocery Store and a ton of other small businesses. Nearby residents frequented the mall, especially the grocery store, which had lower prices than the Ralph's on Vermont.

When university officials began meeting with community groups like SAJE to discuss the project, the groups' two biggest concerns were housing and jobs. Students who rented apartments near campus were driving up the prices and displacing residents. The idea of how well the mall served the community took something of a back seat.

The new USC Village is dominated by dorms and apartments that will house 2,500 students. With its faux-Gothic, red-brick facades and fortresslike walls, the architecture takes its cue from the campus, which used to be open to the public and easily accessible from the outside. That changed after a Halloween night shooting in 2012 left four people wounded. Thereafter, the campus became closed to outsiders — those without a campus ID or accompanied by someone with one — after 9 p.m.

The new Trader Joe's at University Village; Credit: Hillel Aron

The new Trader Joe's at University Village; Credit: Hillel Aron

Visitors to USC Village will face similar restrictions. No one without a campus ID will be allowed to enter after 10 p.m. Any car parked in the underground garage after 10 p.m. will be ticketed (students living in the village will park in a separate off-site parking garage). The businesses will have closed by then, but Donlin says the policy doesn't exactly assuage concerns that the new development is simply an extension of the campus.

“There are concerns about the accessibility of the new University Village to the local community and local residents,” Donlin says. “Often local residents don’t feel welcome on campus, and security guards tell them as much. There is a fear that the new University Village will have the same experience for residents.”

“It is true, the architectural theme is expansion of campus,” says William Marsh, project director for construction at USC. But, he says, “I’ve met a lot of locals. The Trader Joe's and Target have been extremely well received. I’ve seen people sitting around the fountain.”

And while a new fitness center will be for students and faculty only, the development will have a community room, available free on a first-come first-served basis. And the cobbler from the old mall is returning.

But Donlin also says the newer, higher-end businesses could displace older ones. In fact, that's already happened. As the student-run Daily Trojan reported in March, Lil Bill's Bike Shop, an on-campus bike repair shop, was forced to move after the University handed the new bike shop at University Village a noncompete clause.

“We’ve seen far too many black-owned businesses pushed around or pushed out,” Donlin says.

Nevertheless, many local residents are enthusiastic about University Village.

“With everything, there’s a tradeoff,” says Adrienne Kuhre, president of the North Area Neighborhood Development Council. “I’m very excited about it. And I know the community is as well. We've wanted a Trader Joe’s for many years. And we have all these wonderful restaurants moving in.”

LA Weekly