Master of Planning students at the USC Price School of Public Policy went beyond the classroom, applying their skills and knowledge in a varied array of real-world experiences during the recently completed school year.
Planning studios are an integral part of the curriculum, connecting academic education and preparation for professional practice. Recent studios involved students analyzing the best reuse options for an elementary school in the City Heights neighborhood of San Diego, sustainable economic development strategies in Los Angeles’ Fashion District and sustainable business models for container chassis used in urban freight.
These projects are “really the backbone we need to build on for all the professional work to come,” said Tara Worden, a student in the Fashion District studio. Worden noted how these experiences provide the real-world context to complement their theoretical learning.
Each of the studios has a similar structure, with students spending the first half of the semester making site visits, gathering data and hearing from different experts before breaking off into groups to develop thorough reports.
Focusing on the Fashion District
Originally characterized by multistory buildings devoted to garment manufacturing, the Fashion District evolved more into an outlet center with a mix of small-scale wholesale and retail establishments after manufacturing moved offshore in the 1980s. With downtown undergoing a revival, students looked at how to capitalize on that increasing investment while protecting the small business owners and employees that give the district its unique character and sense of place.
Recommendations included creating three distinct zoning categories in the district: a commercial zone that transitions into the rest of downtown in which residential adaptive reuse would be encouraged; a hybrid commercial zone in the center that would place a priority on fashion-related uses; and an industrial zone closest to the warehouse district that would preserve industrial space. Other projects looked at ways to encourage residential use, capital improvements and use of transit and bicycles in the area.
The reports were sent to the Los Angeles Department of City Planning, which will be looking to update the Fashion District plan in the next few years.
“My previous classes have looked at other districts, and the City Planning department often incorporates some of the student suggestions,” said Donald Spivack, adjunct instructor for the class. “I expect that to be the case here, as each of the groups did a really top-notch job. They incorporated input from the business community, resident community and workers in the area.”
Strategies for City Heights
Sol Price, namesake of the USC Price School, spurred the redevelopment of City Heights in the 1990s. Through the school’s partnership with Price Charities and the Price Family Charitable Fund, planning students have had opportunities to work in the community.
During the spring semester, the students created actionable development plans for reuse of the Central Elementary School site, which is scheduled to be vacated in 2019.
The students provided recommendations on project proposals for the San Diego Unified School District: first, to relocate the district’s headquarters to the site; second, to serve the interests of neighborhood youth; and third, to create the highest revenue stream for the district while also benefiting the City Heights community.
Over the course of the semester, the students spent seven days in San Diego exploring City Heights.
It was very holistic in how we dealt with design, economic, social, political and governance issues.
“It was a very hands-on planning experience,” said student Christina Schoppert. “It was very holistic in how we dealt with design, economic, social, political and governance issues. It was wonderful to spend time in City Heights, and I felt like we really got to know the neighborhood. We got to see all of its strengths, that even though the area is faced with economic challenges, it is quite vibrant and interesting.”
San Diego Community School District Superintendent Cindy Marten stressed that all options should take care to mitigate potential impacts of gentrification.
For the youth scenario, students proposed using the site for a co-op, community garden and place-based social enterprise to address issues of gang involvement and food access. The maximum-use scenario included a combination of market rate and affordable housing, neighborhood-serving retail and mixed-use office space to generate long-term, sustainable revenues.
“I was really impressed with the level of work done by the students, particularly in taking things to the planning level and doing pro formas to analyze the economic weight of their analysis,” said adjunct instructor Stephen Russell, who brought his knowledge of the area as board president for the City Heights Community Development Corp. “Cindy was effusive in her praise, saying they showed her things she never imagined and some limitations on things she thought were possible.”
Decongesting local ports
Adjunct instructor Eric Shen, who was the director of transportation planning for the Port of Long Beach and is now with the Maritime Administration of the U.S. Department of Transportation, focused his transportation studio on a specific area of freight movement that has been one of the causes of ongoing congestion at the local ports.
Until a few years ago, chassis, the frames that shipping containers are placed on for ground transport, were provided by the ocean freight carriers. Then shipping lines decided that owning chassis wasn’t profitable for them, and it created confusion on how chassis would be provided for trucking lines to move containers out of the ports.
The students got a thorough understanding of goods movement and its impact on the transportation planning practice.
“The students got a thorough understanding of goods movement and its impact on the transportation planning practice,” Shen said. “The reason I chose the topic of sustainable chassis is that chassis are universal. No containers in the world can be moved without them. The caliber of the analytics procured by the students was impressive and will be helpful to the San Pedro Bay ports and other ports around the nation.”
According to student Kristine Rose, “everyone got really engaged in the issue.”
“I think people were surprised by all the statistics on jobs and congestion impacted by this small contraption,” added Rose, who served as a graduate intern at the Port of Long Beach and is moving east to work full time at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.