"I know we have the image of having these high-end Prada-shopping students. But frankly, we don't have enough of those to support a single retailer at that level. Sixty percent of our students are on financial aid," she said.
USC officials have toured similar projects around the country. They say they have been especially impressed with the University of Pennsylvania's success in bringing shops and housing to nearby low-income areas of West Philadelphia and its ability to help reduce crime there over the last 15 years.
Experts say USC is late in joining a national trend of urban universities becoming active in developing shopping and entertainment areas near campus. Such upgrades in retail and housing can also make a difference in the competition for students and faculty, many of whom look for good cinemas and bike stores, as well as classrooms and labs, they said.
More colleges "are fulfilling a responsibility to provide better services for students, whether in housing or retail opportunities. At the same time, universities are fulfilling a responsibility for developing an area around the university," said Sal Rinella, a consultant who is past president of the Society for College and University Planning.
The schools seek the flavor of UCLA's Westwood, with enough neighborhood engagement "so it doesn't feel like a kind of takeover," he said.
Los Angeles City Councilman Bernard C. Parks supports the plan, which he and other officials said would be the largest commercial development in a generation in his district and all of South Los Angeles. Parks said he expects the USC project and the 1,600-bed University Gateway, a privately run complex opening this fall at Figueroa Street and Jefferson Boulevard, to ease community complaints by bringing student residences closer to campus.
Private landlords in the area will see student demand drop, predicted Jerry Busch, an owner of the North University Park Property Management, which rents apartments to USC students. Although the university emphasizes its goal of improving the neighborhood, Busch said USC also has a financial motive in competing with firms like his.
USC leaders "are doing a natural thing," he said. "They see a healthy place to make a profit."