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Activists Seek Agreement With USC

Coalition wants the university to provide housing and job aid to the campus' neighbors.

October 08, 2003|Jocelyn Y. Stewart | Times Staff Writer

In a few years the parking lot at Figueroa Street and Jefferson Boulevard will be transformed into a Trojan's dream come true.

Inside the proposed $70-million sports arena, thousands of fans will cheer the USC basketball and volleyball teams. Neighborhood kids will receive free tickets to games, and city schools will have a place for graduation ceremonies.

But a community group is asking the university to give local residents something more to cheer about.

The Figueroa Corridor Coalition for Economic Justice is pushing the university to negotiate a "community benefits package" that would include affordable housing and jobs for local residents. Organizers say the package is needed because the university has helped drive up the cost of community housing by not providing enough student housing.

Throughout Southern California, rising rents and a shortage of affordable housing have often placed property owners and tenants at odds. In Los Angeles County last year, the average rent for a two-bedroom, two-bathroom apartment climbed 4.7% to $1,523. In August the median price for homes sold in the six-county region stretching from Ventura to San Diego was $338,000, according to DataQuick Information Systems.

The current market gives landlords an incentive to remove tenants who pay low rents, at the same time giving those tenants an incentive to stay put. In the area around USC, the presence of the university provides a twist: With only 20% of students living in university housing, students and residents compete for rental units, and the area's low-income residents often lose.

"If the university is going to pursue this plan to build an arena

Last week, Carolyn Webb de Macias, vice president of external affairs at USC, declined to sign an agreement to negotiate exclusively with the coalition. In an interview, she outlined the benefits the project already is expected to bring.

"We are thrilled and excited to put on this corner about $100 million of investment," Webb de Macias said. "We see this as a total win-win proposition .... FCCEJ is a particular organization, but we must be respectful of the other 90% of our community residents and organizations, all of whom support this project."

USC is the largest private employer in the city, employing nearly 20,000 workers and contributing an estimated $1.5 billion to the region's economy.

Concerns About Future

As the Galen Center -- the school's long-awaited first basketball arena -- moves closer to reality, coalition members are stepping up their concerns about the future of the 4.75-acre site. Formed in 1999, the coalition of 29 organizations hopes to ensure that development dollars spent in the 40-block strip between USC and the Staples Center benefit the people living in the surrounding neighborhoods.

The land at Jefferson and Figueroa was included by the CRA in the early 1970s as part of a plan to prevent USC from leaving the city, by eliminating blight and expanding the campus, according to a CRA report. The report notes that in 1991, when Steven Sample became USC president, some alumni were advocating "relocating USC to the west side or Malibu as Pepperdine University had done in the early 1970s."

Instead, the report noted, the school "embarked on a major effort to improve facilities and strengthen ties to the community." In 1990 the plan was to build USC Plaza, 916,000 square feet of development, including a 250-room hotel. According to coalition members, the hotel would have created 2,700 jobs and $1.6 million in special taxes to the CRA -- money which could have been used to build affordable housing. But the economy took a downturn. Ultimately, the university decided not to pursue the project because of a weak downtown hotel market. A 2002 university report determined that the best use for the site would be academic or athletic uses or student housing.

The new arena project will provide its own benefits, Webb de Macias said. Among them: 174 full-time union jobs, with a payroll of $80.7 million; an annual contribution of more than $440,000 to the city's general fund; and hosting of the 2006 Academic Decathlon.

There are also other advantages to living near USC, Webb de Macias said. These include many programs that students and staff offer residents, such as Kidwatch, which trains community members to watch over neighborhood children as they travel to and from school.

"While our students create extra residents in the community, they participate in the community," she said. "They do mentoring and tutoring at the local school. They work on projects to paint out graffiti. There's a very positive element to it, even while we recognize they put additional pressure on housing."

For their part, coalition members say the benefits outlined so far are not enough, given the previous plan's potential benefits.

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