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USC : Blending Mini-Malls With Social Services

October 04, 1992|JAKE DOHERTY

With easy access and a variety of stores, mini-malls are the architectural epitome of convenience. But in the Mid-City area, two USC architecture instructors observed that many mini-malls are in neighborhoods replete with problems, including drug use, unemployment, AIDS and family strife.

They wondered why these mini-malls couldn't offer something more than commerce. Why not incorporate social service agencies into the fabric of the mini-mall, thereby giving neighborhoods easier access to services?

"Our intention is not to get rid of the mini-mall," said Christopher Jarrett, a lecturer at the USC School of Architecture. "They are convenient and from an economic point of view, that is, from the view of people who build them, they work. The key is to develop adaptations of the mini-mall, to look for ways to integrate social services into the neighborhood."

To test their idea, Jarrett and Norman Millar, an adjunct professor, developed a summer architecture course just weeks before in the April-May riots.

Along with 18 undergraduate students, Millar and Jarrett went ahead with their course, recognizing that the fate of many burned-out mini-malls underscored a lack of connection to the community.

Teams of three students chose six intersections in the Mid-City area between USC and Hollywood, each with at least three mini-malls, one of which had been damaged in the riots.

After a series of interviews with residents and exercises to help the teams relate to these neighborhoods and their social problems on a visceral level, the students began redesigning the mini-malls to include a social service agency.

The students researched social needs, such as family planning, drug rehabilitation, marriage counseling, youth and elderly services, AIDS education and job training, and then came up with designs that could project a sense of security or hope to potential clients, Millar said.

Millar and Jarrett also had the students incorporate affordable housing into their plans, leading to some models with second-floor apartments above the stores, others built on stilts with parking beneath.

Student Gene Ong worked at Wilton Place and Santa Monica Boulevard where his team proposed a rape-crisis center, a parole office and a marriage-counseling center for the three mini-malls.

"An architect should respond to society's needs," Ong said. "If we can provide a space for a social service and express that service through the architecture, maybe we can redefine the role of the mini-mall."

Another student, David Fellows, worked at Washington Boulevard and Western Avenue where he designed a street-level youth counseling center.

Fellows said he thought making mini-malls more compatible with the needs of a neighborhood might reduce crime. "I think there's a sense of not feeling integrated with what's around you," he said.

Millar and Jarrett recognize that trying to implement any of their students' designs would generate opposition from some residents and businesses. But they hope that new ideas will challenge old ones that may no longer work.

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