Working group, college collaborate on future York property

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The construction of the Occidental Arts building at the corner of York Blvd and Armadale Ave in Los Angeles. Saturday, Feb. 16, 2019. Miaja Lemieux/The Occidental

Occidental College purchased a building on the corner of York Boulevard and Armadale Avenue in 2015. Part of the building will be used for the Oxy Arts building, an arts facility expected to open in Spring 2019, while the remainder of the property will house two food vendors, according to Occidental’s Vice President and Chief Operating Officer Amos Himmelstein.

The purchase has led to concern from Occidental students and staff over the institution’s role in gentrification and the displacement of local community members and residents. These concerns led two students and two faculty members to write a document of guidelines for the college to follow in order to ensure that Occidental’s new presence on York Boulevard does not worsen Highland Park’s trend of gentrification. The group includes students Sammy Herdman (senior) and Diego Zapata (senior) as well as faculty members Sharon Cech, professor and Urban and Environmental Policy Institute staff member, and Valerie Lizárraga, former program coordinator of Occidental’s Partnership for Community Development. The group intends for their document, titled “Community Investment Food Procurement Metrics,” to provide Occidental with a model to assess whether potential food vendors for the York building align with the school’s community investment principles by not contributing to gentrification in the area, according to the Food Resource Guide.

“This group came together originally around proposals for the Oxy Arts space,” Cech said. “There was some concern about Oxy buying up retail real estate and there were questions around what the principles were of Oxy’s role in the community and how we conduct ourselves in the community.”

The college has taken steps to make sure that it plays a positive role in the community, including working with the Principles Working Group, a group of students, staff and community members working to ensure that the college behaves responsibly when buying property in the surrounding neighborhoods, according to Lizárraga.

“Diego [Zapata] and I anticipated that the Community Investment Food Procurement Metrics could be applied to the search for vendors to occupy the two commercial properties on York owned by Oxy,” Herdman said. “This past year, we served as the student representatives and members of the Principles Working Group in meetings to discuss the potential food vendors with administration.”

Himmelstein said that the two vendors have not yet been chosen, but candidates have come to campus for interviews.

“Although the final decisions haven’t been made yet, the Community Investment Principles were used in the process of selecting vendors, which was very gratifying because it means that Oxy is taking a step forward in its interactions with the ever-increasing gentrification of NELA [Northeast Los Angeles],” Herdman said.

Cech said that the document provides strict guidelines for potential vendors at the York property.

“We focus on social equity and social justice within the community, and the issues around displacement or gentrification in Highland Park are of particular concern,” Cech said. “And we also touch on a lot of the food security issues that we look into through a lot of our programs. The number one issue that relates with food security is housing cost, so those issues are not separate.”

Cech said that Occidental’s decision to purchase the unoccupied spaces in the community comes with responsibility and simply through its presence, the school is making a statement. The statement could either be one of asserting presence, power and dominance, or one of inclusivity and the promotion of community engagement, Cech said.

According to the Community Procurement Standards document, “Gentrification is an incredibly nuanced process, particularly in regards to the causative factors that to date remain a source of contention for theorists and sociologists.”

Himmelstein said that he recognizes that Highland Park has undergone gentrification and that he is aware of Occidental’s potential to contribute to it by buying property in the neighborhood.

I think the fact that we’re putting in Oxy Arts in that building and two family-run restaurants is very different from if a developer had bought that property, built some mixed-use space, charged a lot for rent for the apartments, and then had a 7-Eleven and a Panda Express,” Himmelstein said. “So in some ways, by the college purchasing this property, we’ve helped keep that from happening there.”

The new Occidental Arts building at the corner of York Blvd and Armadale Ave in Los Angeles. Saturday, Feb. 16, 2019. Miaja Lemieux/The Occidental

The Community Procurement Standards document states that its purpose is to ensure that Occidental assessed vendors and firms through the perspective of community engagement. The five aspects through which vendors are evaluated are length of establishment, community engagement, local hiring practices, accessibility and affordability. Vendors are then judged based on a metric point system, which allows for a quantitative analysis and the comparison of various local businesses and vendors.

“Our efforts via the metrics are a part of that effort to remain accessible, but Oxy Arts itself needs to take steps to doing that and the college administration should really consider the deliberateness behind the metrics in the restaurant selection process to do so,” Zapata said.

Himmelstein said that the goal is to choose vendors that have affordable prices and employ local, preferably bilingual, residents.

“One of the things were looking for down there is places that will sell things that are affordable, at a good price point, particularly for our students and our neighbors,” Himmelstein said.

Himmelstein said he envisions the new building as a means for Occidental to interact more with its neighbors.

“I think having Occidental College be able to be a little bit more interactive with the neighborhood is a good thing,” Himmelstein said.