November 21, 2006 - From the November, 2006 issue

USC Looks Beyond Ivory Tower to Revitalize & Engage Surrounding South L.A. Communities

While the University of Southern California has been racking up academic and athletic achievements for over a century, the South L.A. neighborhood surrounding it has fallen incongruously into disrepair. USC President Steven Sample has pledged to help bring the neighborhood up to par with the university, and Vice President of External Affairs Carolyn Webb de Macias is leading the effort to make USC a good neighbor and an asset to all of L.A.


Carolyn Webb de Macias

USC President Steven Sample has said that he wants USC to embrace the idea of being an "urban school." How has the university implemented his vision?

When President Sample arrived 14 years ago he said that he wanted USC to be a leader in its local community. And, while he talks about Los Angeles and the Southern California region, he specifically wanted USC to become a good, responsible neighbor for residential communities around our University Park campus and our Health Sciences campus.

He drew an imaginary circle that encompasses the neighborhoods in about a seven to ten block radius and said that USC would focus its resources and its work within this area. He wanted to embark on initiatives that would increase the educational attainment of the children in the area, help provide employment for the adults in the area, and increase the safety of children going to and from their schools, parks, etc.

We're also going to support local and minority businesses and help them grow and thrive as entrepreneurs. We work every day on these initiatives to make the neighborhood and therefore the university even greater.

Also, a significant piece of that is the "Good Neighbor Campaign," which is our version of United Way. Every year we do a campaign in October, and we give staff and faculty the opportunity to pledge funds that we put into a university pot and then give awards in the spring for university-community collaboration. That was started 11 years ago under the leadership of Jane Paisano, who was at the time Sr. VP of external relations and dean of one of our schools, and I now have the great privilege to oversee those initiatives.

USC has spent the last ten or so years leveraging its assets to lift not only the university but also the neighborhood. Over the equivalent 10-year period, the LAUSD has undertaken its own facilities program, but with much less attention to neighborhood improvement. Can you compare the investments these two institutions are making in their adjoining neighborhoods?

LAUSD last year opened 32 new schools; that's the largest number of schools in the nation to be opened at a single time. The construction of the facilities has been phenomenal, but I cannot say that it has been in a very targeted or strategic way. Then again, I wasn't on the inside of the planning for LAUSD, so that's not to say that they didn't do it, but LAUSD is huge. Five schools have opened up in our area this year, and they all want to be part of our network, because they get our students, and they give our students real-life experience in teaching.

The main difference is that the university has the ability as a private institution to set its own strategy and execute it. Our board of trustees supports that work and allows the president to be the CEO. That is not necessarily the case with how decisions are made in the district.

Urban Partners' University Gateway housing development, which just gained approval from the Planning Commission, offers a case study in housing and mixed-use development serving a university. What is the promise and challenge of urban/university developments like Gateway?

Housing is another one of our community initiatives. The housing initiative that President Sample articulated was that the university should be able to attract its employees and faculty to live within the university community. One of the ways we would do that is by hiring within the community and then giving any employee who wants to buy a home and live in the community a $50,000 incentive that is paid to them over time to help pay the mortgage.

Regarding the challenges of building out this community, the region, and particularly the area around the university, is that we face a housing shortage. Much of the housing stock is old and historic, and many properties turned over in the '70s and '80s from original owners to people who invested in the area. Those investors turned single-family homes into, essentially, student dorms -but without the programming. Four or five students would pay more than a family eking out a living.

One of our efforts over the last few years has been to attract developers who would build student housing on the corridors to draw our students out of the residential community. This is a discussion that we have had with residents, with the CRA, with advocates for renters' rights, with folks concerned with the renters who generally don't have the wherewithal to own homes, and with people who purchase multiple homes.

The University Gateway is the perfect project for the university to support, because it is designed with students in mind, and it is market-rate housing. The Planning Commission approved it, but it has been a very difficult process. In fact, some investors who own other properties see it as competition, and they were concerned that it would take away their market. From the university's perspective, this is not a problem-the more housing, the better, actually.

Many students live at the Medici or Downtown at Bunker Hill. We would prefer they live right here at Jefferson and Figueroa at the University Gateway. We don't see that as a conflict. We see that as consistent with efforts that we're doing to improve the community life. We don't particularly want our students living next door to a family when our students are alive and loud and 10 p.m. and the family next door is trying to put a child to bed.

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Councilmember Parks led the effort to create an off-campus housing district. Will this designation alleviate the problems you describe?

About a year and a half ago we did a study on parking and transit to identify the issues with the parking that is intruding on the residential area when students and visitors come to the university. That study made nine recommendations, one of which was to restrict a person who bought a single-family home that had a garage and off-street parking for two cars from converting it into housing that required nine cars.

Nothing in the zoning or in planning referred to the conversion of single-family housing to multiple-family housing with the off-street parking component. Some of those recommendations went to the neighborhood council, some went to the university, and a couple essentially landed in Council office and the Department of Transportation.

Councilman Parks introduced the student housing overlay zone, and, unfortunately, the way in which it was titled said it would assume the name of whichever institution was in the community. So there's a UCLA Student Housing Overlay Zone, and Occidental College Student Overlay Zone, and a USC Housing Overlay Zone, etc.

When the public hearings started, the response was one of confusion. People started saying that the university was trying to take their houses for student housing. They looked at the title, but not the content, which said that you couldn't convert single-family housing to student housing without an extra step for city approval. It stirred people up and caused them to be fearful. They didn't understand that it was the opposite. We were happy that the councilman took the recommendation and went to town; we just had to work at clarifying what that ordinance was actually about.

How will the forthcoming Expo Line benefit the university?

It's a double-edged sword for the university. The idea of public transportation is fabulous; it will reduce stressors for transportation to the university and parking. We are not happy that it will be at-grade going down Exposition. The president said, and will say at any time, that separating the campus from Exposition Park is a mistake and that the line should go underground at least as far as Vermont. The joint 300-plus acres of the university and Expo Park is the largest green space in the city. We've worked hard to become part of Exposition Park, and of course the Coliseum is our home turf. We also have student programs and a museum program; and our students work over there.

But the cost of going underground would have been prohibitive. At one point the university was talking with the MTA about creating a benefit assessment district. However, the Science Center and a number of institutions in the park wanted it at-grade and stations at Trousdale and/or Pardee so that people can get off and walk into the park.

There wasn't the political will at any level to go underground, so there will be one, if not two, stations between Figueroa and Vermont. And we're going to live with it. The president has made his peace with the councilman over this, and we're down to the details of getting it done. We're participating with the design oversight committee. We, as well as the park, want the station to reflect the community, so it will probably look like the university.

How will the new Galen Center arena benefit the neighborhood and USC?

The Galen Center is fabulous. It opened on October 12 with a women's volleyball game, and men's basketball opens tonight (November 16), and this is huge for us. The Galen Center is a dream that is some 70 years old. We worked through a year-and-a-half process getting the entitlements then we spent another year or so building it. It's a wonderful 10,200-seat arena. It looks fabulous at night, and it's more than a basketball arena; it's a community center. It's going to host at least 20 community programs between now and June.

USC is an anchor on the Figueroa Corridor. With these recent developments, on a scale of 1 to 10, how connected are you now?

With the opening of the Galen Center, I think we're at 9. The idea of an arts and entertainment corridor started when Mark Ridley-Thomas was first trying to get the NFL to come to the Coliseum. I was on his staff at that time, I remember the renderings that were drawn, and that was before Staples Center. We were looking at Exposition Park being the southernmost anchor to that, with the university of course being an important part. I think even as we imagined it, we did not know it would be so fabulous. But now with Staples, LA Live, and the Galen Center, you can see from parts north or south the buildings that tie the city together.

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