USC Price School of Public Policy

From redevelopment to affordable housing, planning studios prepare students for professional practice

June 17, 2016

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The La Maestra Community Health Centers in City Heights, San Diego, were among the clients Price MPL students worked with through planning studio projects.

By Matthew Kredell

Pitching proposals for the redevelopment of large infill landscapes or analyzing barriers to affordable housing sounds like a goal urban planning students might have for after they graduate. Master of Planning students at the USC Price School of Public Policy had the opportunity to prepare for professional practice by applying their theoretical studies to real-world scenarios in a variety of planning studios offered during the spring semester.

Urban development in City Heights

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MPL students from the City Heights planning studio. (Photo courtesy of Julie Kim)

The Price School continued its academic-support relationship with City Heights — the diverse San Diego neighborhood for which the school’s namesake, Sol Price, spurred redevelopment in the 1990s. Through the school’s partnership with Price Philanthropies, MPL students have had opportunities to work in the community over the past several years.

Students work on urban design at the City Heights Center, home of Price Philanthropies. (Photo courtesy of Stephen Russell)

Students work on urban design at the City Heights Center, home of Price Philanthropies. (Photo courtesy of Stephen Russell)

In the 2016 City Heights planning studio, which was financially supported by the USC Price Center for Social Innovation, students created proposals for a piece of land previously occupied by La Maestra Community Health Centers.

Project client Zara Marselian, founder and president of La Maestra, started the clinic at the cottage where she grew up in City Heights to help undocumented workers. Over the years, she bought up neighboring cottages and expanded the services to become a full community development organization with a health focus.

Price Philanthropies helped La Maestra move to a new, state-of-the-art facility a block away in 2010, and Marselian is trying to decide how the half block of cottages on the former site can best be used for the community. The USC Price students met with Marselian and other community leaders over three two-day trips to City Heights in consecutive months.

Students present their final project to community leaders including Robert Price, right. (Photo courtesy of Stephen Russell)

Students present their final project to community leaders including Robert Price, right. (Photo courtesy of Stephen Russell)

“The goal for our students was not to act as competing teams but to act as a firm offering four scenarios to help the client decide where to go next with her opportunity,” said adjunct faculty Stephen Russell, who was the instructor of the planning studio. “At the end, the client was really thrilled.”

Recommendations included constructing affordable housing units, creating a community center with cultural programming, a sustainability-focused community garden and outdoor play space, or a mixed-use housing and commercial development that provides training, housing and social services.

“Our Price Philanthropies staff members were extremely impressed with the professional and innovative property redevelopment concepts that were presented to La Maestra Health Clinic by the Master of Planning students at USC Price,” said Robert Price, one of many community leaders who attended the three-hour presentation.

Student Celeste Simon found the studio enriching because it encompassed numerous facets of planning — economic development, community and social outreach, sustainability and political advocacy.

“I hope to work in underserved communities in my professional career, and it was invaluable to meet with professionals in the field and get their feedback as to how we can better serve these communities,” Simon said.

Sustainable redevelopment

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Students visit L.A. City Hall’s rotunda as part of a meeting with the client and site tour. (Photo courtesy of Tanner Blackman).

A studio on “Sustainable Civic Center Redevelopment” looked at 18 acres of underutilized or closed-off land owned by the City of Los Angeles mostly along 1st Street from Civic Center to Little Tokyo. L.A. City Councilmember Jose Huizar recently asked for a comprehensive plan on what to do with the properties, and the students worked directly for Huizar’s office to help inform that process.

Students deliver their final presentation in Los Angeles City Hall's Media Room. (Photo courtesy of Tanner Blackman)

Students deliver their final presentation in Los Angeles City Hall’s Media Room. (Photo courtesy of Tanner Blackman)

Adjunct faculty Tanner Blackman – a 2007 USC Price MPL graduate – was director of planning for Huizar from 2012 to 2015, so he had working relationships with many stakeholders in the district. Students learned about the master plans and planning initiatives currently underway in the area, as well as the historical, political and cultural aspects of the neighborhood.

“Being able to utilize all of the various things we had learned in the program, across all concentrations, and apply it to this very interesting and diverse area was an enlightening and challenging experience,” said student Ben Frazier. “Professor Blackman’s connections brought us a ton of guest speakers to help us better understand the area and all the constraints that planners, politicians, architects, business owners and residents are dealing with to try to maintain the history and character of Little Tokyo while still allowing for growth.”

Students meet with Little Tokyo stakeholders. (Photo courtesy of Tanner Blackman)

Students meet with Little Tokyo stakeholders. (Photo courtesy of Tanner Blackman)

The students broke into five groups to submit one master report. One group had editorial control, coming up with the language and concepts for the report, another examined pedestrian linkages possible from existing funds earmarked toward streetscape improvements by transit projects, and three focused on bundles of property.

They had the opportunity to make their presentation in City Hall. Recommendations included: dedicating City Hall South toward city office space; reconstructing Parker Center into a mixed-use building; adding a residential component to LA Mall; and transforming parking lots in Little Tokyo into mixed-use buildings with space for small businesses as well as large anchor tenants.

“For us it’s an academic project, but it’s a real project to the people to whom they were presenting,” Blackman said. “The city is going to bring on a consultant soon to prioritize how to move forward, and I really think the ideas brought by the students have the possibility of helping out in these discussions. I hope students came away realizing that they were talking to real decision makers and have the potential to make real impact, keeping them on that path to careers in planning.”

Affordable housing analysis

In another planning studio, titled a “Domestic Lab in Affordable Housing,” taught by adjunct faculty Jan Breidenbach, students analyzed how often neighborhood councils opposed affordable housing projects, and how often those projects were then stopped or cut back.

The highlights of the studio were visits to affordable housing projects. “A series of site visits allowed us to see the diversity of affordable housing in Los Angeles, ranging from exceptionally amenities-filled Hollywood apartments to the redevelopment of Jordan Downs in Watts,” said student Kyle Abbott.

In mapping affordable housing projects in Los Angeles by neighborhood councils, students found a correlation between increased opposition and gentrification. Out of the seven districts with no affordable housing projects, six were higher-income neighborhoods.

“The students found there really is very little data on how neighborhood councils make their decisions,” Breidenbach said.