When it comes to creating a more affordable, livable Southern California, Trojans are rising to the challenge.
By Scott Collins
Every day, Scott Laurie ’96 adds another brick to his lifelong dream.
It’s not easy to build affordable new homes in Los Angeles County, one of the nation’s priciest housing markets. But that’s exactly what Laurie, president and CEO of The Olson Company, is doing, most recently in Willowbrook, a diverse, working-class community about a 20-minute drive south of the University Park Campus.
Laurie has put the finishing touches on a gated development of 94 single-family homes, which, thanks to government subsidies, will cost some buyers less than $100,000 out of pocket. That compares with a median home price of about $615,000 in Los Angeles County at the close of summer, according to real estate tracker CoreLogic.
“We have sold 35 homes in five weeks,” Laurie tells a visitor one recent morning at the construction site, as workers in hard hats hammer together wooden frames on what was, not so long ago, a trash-strewn vacant lot ringed by graffiti-covered walls.
“This is true affordable housing that has been incredibly well received in the area,” he adds.
Suddenly Laurie stops and stares at an Adirondack chair placed outside a bright, impeccably decorated model home. Bending down, he flips one of the wooden footstools around to face the opposite direction, then nods with satisfaction.
“I’m a stickler for details,” he says with a smile.
Laurie is just one of many alumni who are using their USC education in real estate development and related fields to pursue innovative building projects — and tackle some of the toughest problems facing Southern Californians: maximizing scarce green spaces, revitalizing established neighborhoods and balancing living and working despite a congested transportation system. How they address these issues could shape the region through the rest of the century.
Many of these Trojans are alumni of the USC Price School of Public Policy’s Dollinger Master of Real Estate Developmentprogram. Others, such as Laurie, studied planning, policy and related subjects as undergraduates.
“I had always wanted to be in real estate,” Laurie says. “My father had a public relations company in Los Angeles and represented some large developers. I grew up hearing about and visiting these communities. I went to ’SC and found that major I was incredibly passionate about. It gave me an entry point. I wasn’t sure where I was going in real estate, but USC helped to provide a foundation.”
The Rise — and Stall — of Los Angeles Real Estate Development
It’s a foundation with a future.
Laurie and other property-minded alumni are finding California in the midst of a major building boom, buoyed by strong demand and a brisk overall U.S. economy. Commuters know the now-familiar sight of a downtown Los Angeles skyline dotted with construction cranes and half-completed high-rises.
By the end of March 2018, the city of Los Angeles had already issued more than 1,000 building permits beyond its total for all of 2017, according to consulting firm MGAC.
But building still takes time. Developers must navigate regulatory issues and community desires and concerns. Residents are wary of developments that can bring noise, traffic and construction headaches. Money can be tough to raise.
The region put off building for a long time, however, and now it’s trying to catch up.
Urban planners long believed that a more livable Los Angeles required transforming it into a more densely packed city, he says. That would have meant building many high-rise housing units, expanding mass transit and de-emphasizing the car culture that is the region’s hallmark.
Residents balked at such changes, and from the 1980s on, local officials blocked new development with tough zoning restrictions.
It’s easy to see why residents have been skittish. Contrary to its image as an endless sprawl of post-war homes, stucco apartments and strip malls, the Los Angeles metropolitan area is already overall the most densely populated area in the United States, with nearly 7,000 people per square mile, according to the most recent U.S. Census figures. (The New York City-Newark region, by comparison, ranks at No. 5.)
But many international cities have several times the density of Los Angeles, and experts believe that Southern California could grow more efficient in how it builds.
“We really put on the brakes in a big way in terms of development,” says Painter, who is also director of the Homelessness Policy Research Institute, which includes dozens of policymakers and researchers across the county. “So in many ways, we’re paying the cost of people being quite comfortable with their Los Angeles as it was. We just didn’t build enough.”
The results are now evident to every Southern Californian: soaring home prices, urban sprawl and punishing commutes.
That’s why experts believe the new boom is critical to the region’s future, and why developers have so much to contribute.
“We’ve generated a lot of jobs here,” says Richard K. Green, professor and director of the USC Lusk Center for Real Estate. But that prosperity is threatened when “people come here and they don’t have places to live.”
Ashley Atkinson MPA ’07, MPP ’07 a former top aide to Mayor Eric Garcetti who now works in the Los Angeles Department of City Planning, says Los Angeles, like other major cities, is striving to find balance. “Meaning, having housing for the people who have jobs in the city — while also having jobs for the folks who live in the city,” she says.
Public Transit Takes a Front Seat
Jennifer McElyea MRED ’06 is working on a project that hints at the future Los Angeles.
She has been shepherding a proposed housing and retail development adjacent to the Expo/Crenshaw Metro station, along the light-rail train line that connects downtown L.A. to Santa Monica. It’s a development that takes stock of the changes that have reshaped the county over the past few years, as an expanding rail transit system affects how people move, work and live. Residents may be able to cut their overall travel times sharply by living very close to shopping, grocery stores and transportation.
This fits within a broad movement gaining traction among urban planners. The city of Los Angeles, for one, has been pushing “public-transit-oriented communities” with a special program offering incentives for affordable housing.
Plans for the Crenshaw project were drawn up before that program went into effect in 2017. But Crenshaw is a joint public–private partnership, with the Watt Companies — where McElyea works as a senior managing partner with Watt Investment Partners, the firm’s commercial investment division — proposing to build on land owned by the city and Los Angeles County. The plan calls for a minimum of 400 residential units and at least 40,000 square feet of commercial space.
The entire project would be constructed on two lots adjacent to the existing Expo Line train station. By late 2019, an intersecting rail line will connect commuters to Los Angeles International Airport as well.
The site is just west of Leimert Park, a planned community that dates from the 1920s. A busy, diverse area, it has been a center of African-American art and culture since World War II. As the area transforms into a mass-transit hub, longtime residents are keeping a wary eye on the shifting demographics to come.
“There’s clearly concern about the rapid nature of change in the community over the past several years, particularly in an area that hadn’t seen material investment for over 30 years,” McElyea says. One of the project’s goals is to ensure that the development is a good fit for current residents and future tenants.
In terms of housing, another goal is to attract residents who will be able to take advantage of being just a few steps away from a commuter train. That includes luring lower-income Angelenos who would typically be unable to afford new housing in a central location. Initiatives like Los Angeles’ Transit Oriented Communities program and other state and city policy measures will allow the project to designate 20 percent of its units as affordable.
“We are excited to have the opportunity to serve a broad range of income levels,” McElyea says.
There’s also a chance to expand shopping options. The area is often described as a “food desert,” with few grocery stores nearby. So McElyea’s firm is hoping to anchor the development with at least one market for fresh food.
Public outreach has likewise made clear the need for community space. Currently, many senior citizens end up trekking to the nearby Baldwin Hills Mall for some exercise because there are few good places for an outdoor stroll in the neighborhood. A useful public space “doesn’t necessarily have to be a green park,” McElyea says. Watt is currently exploring ideas for a senior-friendly walking path through the site.
Ultimately, McElyea sees the Crenshaw project as more than just a mixed-use development. If built—Watt is still working through the entitlement process with the community and government officials—the development could serve as a gateway to the city.
“People who are landing at LAX and are coming up out of the tunnel … this is what they’re going to see,” she says.
This is the kind of thinking that McElyea developed over a decade ago, during her time at USC. She was working as an investment banker in New York and happened to see a Wall Street Journal ad for USC’s Dollinger MRED program. It was the kind of challenge she had been looking for. “I had been very heavily focused on the finance side of real estate and I wanted to do something a little more hands-on,” she says.
USC offered a real-life urban lab, with the rapidly evolving downtown Los Angeles and Exposition Park neighborhoods just short hops away. In the classroom, she got much-needed immersion in the entitlements process to secure approvals from local governments. And she also learned about the importance of reaching out and listening to residents to better address their concerns.
“This isn’t you showing up at the public hearing, unveiling a project, and then hoping people like it,” she says. “It’s very grassroots. That’s something I didn’t appreciate until I did the MRED, where [the lesson] was, ‘The community is your partner in getting your projects done.’”
Finding a Place to Meet — and Eat
Adam Daneshgar MRED ’09 knows all about community. He is reinvigorating Grand Central Market, a legendary downtown Los Angeles landmark that draws more than 2 million hungry visitors annually. Some are businesspeople who spill out of downtown high-rise offices at lunch. Others are tourists who have traveled thousands of miles to experience California’s good life.
One steamy morning, Daneshgar whirls through a tour of the market, the sprawling, century-old food-stall emporium he bought in 2017.
He zips past Sari Sari Store, a Filipino fast-food eatery that was a personal favorite of the late restaurant critic Jonathan Gold. He maneuvers around the ever-interminable line at Eggslut, where patrons clamor for an unconventional protein-and-carbohydrate collision rendered from a coddled egg served atop potatoes in a jar. And he points out the glass case at Roast to Go, a beloved Mexican eatery that looks as if it arrived in a time machine from the 1950s.
“People come here because it’s an experience,” Daneshgar says of the market, as throngs of tourists strike poses in front of a giant neon sign advertising a luxury brand of whiskey (which, as it happens, can’t be served at the market, where tenants are only licensed for beer and wine).
Passion for real estate is part of Daneshgar’s makeup. His father and brothers work in property development. He studied economics as an undergraduate and developed a strong background in financial underwriting. But as he started his career he realized he knew little about construction and other practicalities of development.
His degree taught him how to hire contractors, move through entitlements and work with city officials. It also gave him a list of personal contacts. “I knew I wanted to get into real estate in Los Angeles,” Daneshgar says. “There’s a great network at USC, and I want to be a professional here, and I don’t think there’s any other option when it comes to that.”
He found himself working especially closely with Christian Redfearn, an associate professor of real estate.
“Chris was a huge mentor to me,” Daneshgar says. “He challenged me. He got me to think. He wouldn’t give you answers, he would get you to think about what the potential answers are and what the impacts are. He always said that the correct answer to a question is, ‘It depends.’”
After finishing the Dollinger MRED program and looking for his first big investment, Daneshgar took advantage of the lower prices in the wake of the 2008 financial crash to redevelop a large Las Vegas property that had been hit hard by the turmoil.
Then came an opportunity much closer to his heart.
While he was working as a young financial analyst in downtown Los Angeles, Daneshgar would often walk over to grab a bite at Grand Central Market. He marveled at the bustling scene there, the way that the market was both a destination and an integral part of the neighborhood. He had always loved food and wanted to find a way to combine that with his line of work. “That was really a dream project to me,” he says.
Getting a tip that the property might be available, Daneshgar approached Adele Yellin, whose late husband, Ira, had controlled the company that owned Grand Central Market since the 1980s.
“I engaged her through a mutual connection with a very genuine and heartfelt letter, [saying] ‘This place means a lot to me, and it would mean a lot to me if I just had the opportunity to share my story and share my vision for this place. … We’re not trying to change it,’” he remembers telling her. “‘We just want to embrace what it is and continue to build upon it.’”
By the end of 2017, the sale, which also included adjacent apartments and a vintage theater, was a done deal.
Now Daneshgar, via his company Langdon Street Capital, wants to build upon the market’s history by expanding the amenities. He wants to improve the lighting and remodel the bathrooms, redesign the cramped parking structure and add a concierge to help visitors navigate the array of food options.
“We like the character, we like the raw authenticity of this place,” he says. “We like that it’s a connection to the roots of our city and what this place used to be 100 years ago.”
He also sees the market’s role in the revival of downtown Los Angeles, a process that he dates from the opening of Staples Center in 1999. New residential developments are creating demand in an area that was long underserved. Grand Central Market has served local businesses for decades; in the future, its new owner says, it will be convenient for nearby apartment dwellers filling up new units.
“It used to be, you’d drive around downtown, there was nothing going on,” Daneshgar says. “Now, there are people out in the streets. There are people going to bars and restaurants. In the next five years, there’s going to be a heavy demand — for people who are here in the evenings — to eat, to entertain themselves, to shop. We want to be that destination for them.”
Thinking Beyond the High Rise
For one of her first assignments at USC, Atkinson, the former Garcetti aide, analyzed Old Pasadena. The shopping district, Pasadena’s original commercial center, had fallen on hard times before being redeveloped in the 1990s.
“I still have a copy of the Old Pasadena Redevelopment Plan that I was given as part of that assignment,” she says. The revitalization proved successful, and budding planners and developers often use the plan as a local case study for reestablishing a commercial hub while maintaining a city’s traditional urban fabric and historic buildings.
"What we’re trying to do is not just deliver affordable housing. We’re trying to benefit the whole neighborhood by building sustainable communities that add significant value to the existing area." - SCOTT LAURIE
Of course, Pasadena is just one small part of Los Angeles County. And at the time of the transformation, affordable housing was more accessible than it is today. But experts such as the Lusk Center’s Richard Green are confident that Los Angeles can summon other successful, wide-scale solutions for neighborhood revitalization that take into account housing and transit — provided citizens and their leaders can be bold and imaginative.
He offers the example of Venice Boulevard, an aesthetically challenged and often-congested stretch of stores and restaurants running from near USC to the Westside. “It’s an enormous street,” Green says. Instead of the current commercialized mix, an enterprising developer “could put up Parisian-style apartments, with some ground-floor retail.” Such a reimagining, Green adds, could add much-needed density to the area without resorting to high-rise buildings.
This type of project might be too pie-in-the-sky for some. But the projects that USC alumni are pursuing today are giving many people hope for the future.
Scott Laurie, the developer helping to reimagine housing in Willowbrook, believes that such hope is vital for Los Angeles as a whole.
A few miles to the west of the University Park Campus, Laurie is peering at another building site, this one still a vacant lot bordered by a chain-link fence. Tractor-tire imprints in the dirt hint at the earth-moving equipment that will soon transform the area.
It’s part of a large residential development being built by The Olson Company.
When it’s complete, the project will include 184 townhomes, all within walking distance of the Expo Line train station. The Crenshaw project that McElyea is developing is just a few blocks away.
Laurie takes a visitor on a tour of the neighborhood as a Metro train clacks past. Several empty buildings will be razed for the project, including an old dairy and some warehouses.
“What we’re trying to do is not just deliver affordable housing. We’re trying to benefit the whole neighborhood by building sustainable communities that add significant value to the existing area,” he says. It’s a distinction that might turn out to be more meaningful and more integral to Los Angeles and its residents. And to their future.