USC Village: Young man with musical instrument on back, skateboard, and shopping bag in the foreground, and scores of people sitting and walking. Photo by Robert Steuteville.

USC Village has street life galore

A ton of people and a well-designed public realm combine in the alchemy of a happy place in LA.

I was recently in southern California, for an in-person meeting of CNU staff (the first since the pandemic began), with our new executive director, Rick Cole, a long-time resident, former mayor, and city manager of Pasadena. I took Metro rail most of the way from Pasadena to LAX, but got off on an impulse when I saw a stop marked “USC Village” on the train.

I was not in a hurry to catch a plane, and I am a sucker for visiting new urban projects. USC Village is a mixed-use town center adjacent to the University of Southern California. It was a hot Friday afternoon in August, not the sort of day that one would expect to see large crowds of pedestrians. Given that the village was part of the station name, I expected to get right off and see it. I wandered around in the blazing sun for a block or two before punching it into my iPhone and realized USC Village is located a half mile from the station—surprising to see a new urban project not even that close to Metro highlighted on public transit.

I walked to the development and I was not disappointed. Listed as a “shopping mall” on my phone, USC Village is much more. The 15-acre, $700 million development includes housing for 2,500 students, the first sizable grocery store built in South LA since the 1960s (Trader Joe’s), a Target, other shops and restaurants, and a really fine public space. Most of it was completed in 2017.

The community scale architecture—the urban design—can be judged by the impressively high pedestrian activity and socializing that I found, which was amazing given that I visited in the middle of a weekday. USC Village has become the outdoor living room for USC’s more than 40,000 students.

The architecture, by Harley Ellis Devereaux, can be described as neo-Gothic, inspired by what I gather is the pre-dominant campus style. The building design is all in the same style—for better or worse, there was no attempt to hide that this was a single architectural project. The phrase “faux-neo-Gothic” popped into my head at one point, and yet that may be selling it short because the buildings look solid, with substantial depth to the masonry windows and details. The bottom line is that USC Village made me happy. The acid test for urbanism is how people react to it and use it.

There were hundreds of people, most obviously students, wandering around, sitting, talking, and just hanging out in the public spaces. Many were not going anywhere, and others did not appear to be in a hurry. I have rarely seen this much routine street life in a new urban project. I can only imagine what this place would look like on a Friday or Saturday evening, or when some event is taking place.

I am familiar with the built environment in and around universities. I have lived in a college town for 24 years with two large institutions and, of course, went to college back in the day. Ithaca, New York, where I live, has some great public spaces but nothing adjacent to the institutions that looks as fun as USC Village, nor containing retail as useful as Target or Trader Joe’s.

In my brief visit I attribute a few factors contributing to the lively public spaces:

  • Active street frontages. I didn’t go down see every public facing building in the development, but I did walk down three or four block faces and each one had active retail/restaurant uses on the first floor. The outer edges of USC Village consist of streets with motor vehicles, and the interior is accessed by broad pedestrian-only ways with plenty of people to support businesses. Parking is located underneath, accessed by a single entry that is cleverly incorporated into one of the broad pedestrian ways.
  • A ton of people. The 2,500 residential units on the upper floors of USC Village provide a constant supply of people within the development, immediately adjacent to a campus with more than 40,000 students, surrounded by other neighborhoods. The village also has substantial employment (one description I read said 8,000 permanent jobs, although some of that may come in future phases), adding to weekday activity. My brief visit to the village could not inform me as to how much it is used by people from nearby neighborhoods. 
  • Well-shaped public spaces. The dimensions of the passages leading in to USC Village feel good. They are broad enough to be welcoming, yet tightly enclosed and secure feeling, with width-to-height ratios of 1:1 or 2:1. There are plenty of eyes on the street in all directions. The central plaza is just great—it feels like an Italian piazza to me (I have never been to Italy as an adult, so this is more of an impression).
  • A variety of inviting spaces to sit and socialize. The designers did a great job of creating sections of the large plaza that are smaller, more intimate, and have distinct character. There’s a fountain that people sit on. Benches are arranged in interesting ways. Tables large and small with big umbrellas are grouped in several spots. Padded couches and chairs are abundant, many of which are shaded by trees. There are large open areas to the plaza offering more distant views across (you might see somebody you know). Arcades line some of the plaza where people may get out of the sun and have a tête-à-tête. Shade is a big part of the design.  

Here are random snapshots on my old iPhone, which doesn’t even have a very good camera. The place looks effortlessly full of life. Kudos to Harley Ellis Devereaux, which has designed a landmark in South LA.

A passage into the project. Photo by Robert Steuteville.
An area in the central plaza, and one of the more inviting and appealing places to sit. Photo by Robert Steuteville.
Tables with umbrellas are widely occupied. Photo by Robert Steuteville.
The plaza from another angle, with the fountain and one entrance to Trader Joe's visible. Photo by Robert Steuteville.
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