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The Nation

USC Seeks Downtown Admission

Several university, business and housing projects are bridging a once significant gap. Still, it's very much a work in progress.

October 12, 2006|Cara Mia DiMassa and David Pierson | Times Staff Writers

For years, USC has struggled with its image as a campus in the heart of the inner city and tried to link its fortunes to downtown Los Angeles, a few miles north.

Now, a newly gentrified and hip downtown is marching south, while the university is creeping north. They haven't quite met, but both USC and downtown officials envision a day when the red-brick campus marks the southern edge of the city center.

Several high-end residential tower projects are slated for the areas between USC, Staples Center and the sprawling, sports-themed L.A. Live shopping and hotel complex being built nearby.

A piece of this puzzle will be unveiled tonight, when USC's women's volleyball team plays its first game at the Galen Center, a new 10,258-seat arena on Figueroa Street across from the campus' northeastern tip.

The effort comes as other universities -- including Columbia, the University of Pennsylvania and the University of Chicago -- are aggressively working to improve their tough urban neighborhoods.

Penn, in gritty West Philadelphia, has spent hundreds of millions of dollars over the last decade trying to improve the surrounding area. The push came after a graduate student was killed.

The university has been beautifying streets and homes, encouraging more retailers to move in and even helped open a new elementary school, said spokesman Ron Ozio. Penn also pays the Police Department to have dozens more officers patrol the neighborhood.

"Many universities battle this," said Joel Kotkin, the author of several books about L.A. urban life. "I don't know a lot of people who would consider the neighborhood around USC a particularly prime place to live yet. It's a problematic location. It is still adjacent to some of the poorest parts of L.A."

But USC and downtown planners say a larger symbiotic relationship is beginning to take root: Downtown dwellers are using the campus as a venue for sports, arts and culture, while USC students are using downtown as a place to live and shop.

"It makes it a lot easier to be able to brag about all the things going on within two minutes of campus," said Michael L. Jackson, vice president for student affairs.

USC estimates that at least 1,000 students live downtown. But AEG, the developer of L.A. Live, calculated that about 50,000 college students -- mainly those at USC, Cal State L.A., Los Angeles Trade Tech College and Loyola Law School -- attend classes within a few miles of their development.

Officials at L.A. Live -- a $1.7-billion tourist-oriented "sports-entertainment" hub that will feature a hotel, a 7,100-seat theater, broadcast facilities, a 14-screen movie theater and nearly a dozen restaurants and clubs -- see college students as major users of the complex.

"There is life and energy that that age group brings," said Ted Tanner, the senior vice president of AEG. "They are a natural for the things that we are doing."

Of course, downtown L.A.'s renaissance is far from complete. Despite a population that now exceeds 20,000 and the coming of the Frank Gehry-designed Grand Avenue retail and residential complex, other parts of downtown remain plagued with homeless problems and a lack of shopping for the new arrivals.

So the extent to which USC students embrace the district is unclear.

Two years ago, USC student Matthew Kurtin decided that he wanted a change -- something a little more vibrant than the campus housing where he'd lived his first year at the university.

So he moved into the heart of downtown, to the historic Gas Co. loft building at 8th and Flower streets.

"I thought it would be cool to live downtown," said Kurtin, a Toronto native and a student of cinema and business administration.

But Kurtin, 21, said he quickly found it lonely living downtown. The neighborhood had a sprinkling of USC students, but there was no critical mass. Most of the parties were on campus, and Kurtin found it hard to get from his apartment to campus and back. Once his lease was up, Kurtin moved in with two friends on campus.

This fall, Kurtin is giving downtown another try. Now a senior, he and a roommate have leased an apartment in Metro 417, a building at 4th and Hill streets. A group of their friends moved into an apartment in the same building.

There's "a lot more culture, especially further downtown," he said. "It's starting to get there."

Recent USC graduate Miguel Fletcher, who lives at the Pegasus building across from the Standard hotel on Flower Street, said his classmates seem to be taking over parts of downtown.

"Some students use these condos and apartments as dorms almost," Fletcher said. "Students move to this area for the lofts, for the expanse, for the life. They make a choice to live among the buildings."

Downtown's biggest building boom is now occurring on the southern end, near Staples Center. Besides L.A. Live, the so-called South Park area is dotted with construction cranes building new residential towers as well as a Ralphs grocery store, the first chain supermarket in downtown in decades.

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