Friday, June 22

Submission: Westwood’s walkable street culture should be prioritized

Up until the 1990s, Westwood Village offered much more in the way of amenities and excitement, but in recent decades the area has seen much less activity and becomes especially quiet during evenings. This is a strange phenomenon; after all, if UCLA can scatter some $12.7 billion a year throughout the L.A. region, why can’t it support a more prosperous retail and entertainment hub at its own doorstep?

The answer to this question is complex, and the Westwood Village Improvement Association recently commissioned the York Consulting Group to both assess the challenges confronting Westwood Village and recommend strategies for moving forward. The resulting report, entitled “The Westwood Village Retail Strategy,” is now out and it is well worth perusing for anyone interested in improving the Village.

There are many things to applaud in the report, particularly its emphasis on enhancing the pedestrian environment through the improvement of sidewalks and and crosswalks. The report is also spot on when it identifies the absence of public-gathering space in Westwood Village as a significant shortcoming.

Yet the report loses a bit of focus by not clearly differentiating Westwood Village’s central identify from that of a mall. Where malls have unimpeded pedestrian-oriented environments inside and abundant free parking nearby, Westwood Village is a bustling network of streets full of bicycles, buses, cars and pedestrians with more scattered parking. What the “Retail Strategy” misses is that the higher level of movement and chaos is not a weakness but rather the Village’s most vital and distinguishing asset.

We live in an era when indoor malls are dying, and increasingly those that survive are outdoor malls that prefer the moniker of “lifestyle center.” But these lifestyle centers such as The Grove and Third Street Promenade are still a knockoff of the real deal – a city with a lively, unpredictable mix of movement and activity.

Westwood Village needs the courage to recognize that it has in its bones a walkable street culture that is in fact a very scarce good in Los Angeles, and that by enhancing this feature it will accomplish two important goals: First, people within walking, bicycling and transit distance will visit the Village more often, and second, people traveling from longer distances in a car will be more willing to endure expensive parking or the effort to locate a cheap space.

There is also the significant promise of Westwood Village as an arts and culture hub that would be a natural fit with the Village’s walkable layout. The Grove and other malls might be able to offer a pleasant night out, but only real city streets offer variety, spontaneity and mystery. More independent cafes and bars that sponsor the arts with open mic nights and live performances would enhance the Village nightlife, and with the right stakeholder support, the Village has the potential to offer a standout mix of film, museums, music and perhaps even theater and comedy.

The issue of access to the village from the outside is an important one, and the report recommends that the Village find the right “balance” between pedestrians, bikes, cars and buses. Yet it shies away from spelling out more clearly what the balance would be. Pedestrians and bicyclists add to the unique charm of the Village streets, and as such should be prioritized by making the streets calmer through slower traffic and the addition of bike lanes on Westwood Boulevard and other streets. If Westwood Village prioritizes the movement of cars and the provision of inexpensive parking in order to draw a regional customer base, it directly undermines any effort to create the kind of pedestrian experience that would draw these same people to the Village in the first place.

Any report on a subject as complicated as this one is bound to invite criticism, but the “Westwood Village Retail Strategy” is an excellent opening salvo to a larger conversation about the future of Westwood Village. Given the transitional nature of the student population at UCLA, now would be the perfect time for the permanent fixtures of the UCLA community to take a stronger interest in ensuring the quality of life for future students. It may seem counterintuitive, given the task of managing a huge campus, but helping shape Westwood Village into a more lively and walkable urban area is one of the best ways to make life better for everyone at UCLA.

Holmes is a graduate student in urban and regional planning at the Luskin School of Public Affairs.

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  • Guest of a Guest

    There is a lot wrong with the growing non-symbiotic relationship between UCLA and Westwood Village. Although UCLA is drawing in the masses (students, faculty, staff, patients, prospective students and their families, attendees of conferences and events, etc.) on a daily basis, it is also trying to tap into their visits and stays on campus by offering a glut of amenities (think: $$$). One massive example: UCLA offers students a multitude of services on campus such as eateries and food rivaling restaurant quality and style, a post office, a market place, student health clinic, etc. Many students would not even need to leave the main campus or their dorm areas AT ALL if they didn’t want to. Couple this with kids who are so completely focused on academics and their helicopter parents who have to track their every move that they’re so scared to even venture further than the confines of Gayley, Sunset, Hilgard and Le Conte! Westwood Village at that point is a no man’s land. There’s even a weekend bus service that takes students from the Hill to Ralph’s- so even the “adventurous students” are still on a one-way, direct route when they do leave the confines of campus. On the weekends you see the newer classes at the bus stops waiting for the Big Blue Bus to take them to Santa Monica for 50 cents. There’s nothing to draw and keep them in the village and the local homeowners associations are happy to keep it that way- no establishments that only act bars (must serve food!), no live music, no dancing– it’s like Footloose!

  • Guest of a Guest

    Westwood also needs more outdoor space and greenery that adds to the sense that someone can stay and linger while enjoying their food from a local establishment or simply their lunch. During the weekdays people are forced to grab and go during the lunch hour if the restaurants are full. Very few places offer adequate outdoor seating (whether enough chairs, tables, or umbrellas). Even a plaza with tables would be nice like the space outside of Starbucks in front of the Fox Theater. That type of space certainly pulls a crowd for a reason. The same can be said for the simple benches and trees in front of Trader Joes. If Westwood provided that type of environment, more people would be willing to venture into Westwood for lunch- and with other people, therefore increasing spending- rather than stay in, order to go, or find an eatery with lots of indoor seating. The homeless problem needs to be addressed as these spaces are overcome with homeless individuals taking up the space with their belongings. No one can enjoy coffee or food when a half-naked person is yelling and reeking.

    • Ay

      People need homes. Poverty needs to be addressed. People without homes are people without any privacy, working their buns off to recycling our waste for a penance. They must carry with themselves all of their possessions. They must bear the burden of all the elements, judgments, and stress of extreme poverty. Some might need mental health care they cannot afford. These people are part of the public, part of our community, our neighbors, someone’s child/sybling/parent/teacher/friend. Witnessing extreme poverty is uncomfortable, but necessarily so. Shooing it, deeming it pathological, sterlizing homelessness from our cityscape simply pushes these individuals around without ameliorating the structural problem whatsoever. There is a much better way to address the issue than the above commentary. Yes, homelessness is a problem. Let’s actually face it and help these people find the resources they need. You might try practicing empathy. Many people enduring homelessness in America have very heartbreaking personal histories, despite great efforts and high dreams falling through the cracks and losing hope. They deserve to be spoken of with respect and dignity. I can’t imagine myself (or anyone I know) being able secure a job with a place to store my things, a shower, clothing, social support, a good (safe) nights rest, a phone and address to list on the application, or extensive therapy to cope with the terribly harmful things some thoughtless people says about other people for no good reason.

      • Guest of a Guest

        I think you read too much into the comment, but Los Angeles residents already pay into taxes for city services and the Westwood business owners voted to charge themselves a tax for the BID. The BID has helped with addressing some of the needs of homeless individuals. It worked for a while and the population decreased, however the issue has only seemed to return two-fold. Whatever the source, and the attraction homeless people have to this area, IS a problem to Westwood- and this is what the article is about: making Westwood better. Now, there are so many factors to homeless issues (as you mentioned above). Until those things are addressed by leadership, everyone (visitors, workers, and residents) still has to deal with the effects it has on the environment and business: walking over people laying in doorways, the smell of alcoves used as restrooms, etc. Most people want them to get help, but the solution is not always up to one individual, but our leadership to organize and see the solution through.

  • you think?

    Good point. There are tens of thousands of students within a ten-minute walk of this entire district. The emphasis on appealing to people who need to drive and park versus this massive captive audience who doesn’t require that infrastructure is idiotic. Telegraph Avenue, the thriving and iconic shopping area near the UC Berkeley campus is able to succeed almost entirely with easy pedestrian access and not a reputation for overabundant parking. Trying to compete with the Century City mall is a fool’s errand especially when we are one of the most densely populated neighborhoods in Los Angeles. Parking gets dozens of pages in the report, but there’s no mention of the unpleasant walk along Galey coming from the dorms or the North Village? Don’t complain about students neglecting Westwood when you completely ignore us and scheme to close cheap restaurants and other businesses that actually bring us down there. It feels like all the landlords want is a Cheesecake Factory and an Ann Taylor Loft. Thrilling.

    • Guest of a Guest

      The funny thing is that Ann Taylor Loft couldn’t even manage to stay open on Westwood Blvd. If a large, retail chain can’t handle the costs of business in Westwood, then who can? The landlords need to come down to reality and work with businesses to not only draw them in, but stay. It’s a tough business when- and the report mentions part of this- that most of the activity in the Village is during the weekday lunch hour, but if 8 am- 5 pm, Monday through Friday, and September to June are the times when there’s the most buzz in the area, then the neighborhood groups, businesses, and landlords really need to get together and come up with a mutual plan that will drum up more activity. So many places have come and gone in Westwood and it seems that new businesses close in months nowadays! We could only wish Westwood had the activity and buzz of Telegraph (and we have better weather to boot!).

  • Ay

    Great article. A commenter below brought up the stark contrast between the approach of the commercial area of Downtown Berkeley at the bottom of UCB’s campus and that of UCLA. Due to the area being so car-oriented, students are forced to resort to going far from campus for birthday dinners, dates, shopping, etc. I don’t understand why Westwood Village doesn’t care to appeal to the students at all.

  • LA Local

    A key component is the Westwood Neighborhood Council, which actually functions as the Homeowner’s Association, and aims to protect the rights of the homeowners (who undoubtedly benefit from their location/proximity on the Westside, close to many economic engines, etc.) and yet want to restrict the rights of those that do not own homes (ie: the majority of residents and students).

    For example, certain residents (especially along Hilgard) have benefited and been able to purchase homes at reduced market rates due to their location on Hilgard (a busy street with lots of sorority and student housing). Yet, once they move in they try to limit the public transit that services campus (and has had a history of serving students for decades). What’s heartbreaking is that they have been successful at limiting service and the UCLA campus has (potentially deliberately) not been able to successfully stand up to the homeowners, Koretz or Metro/BBB to advocate against the changes.

    The survey that the “neighborhood council” and Westwood BID sent out a year or so ago around this issue focused on “lack of parking” as a constraint for economic growth. The truth is that Westwood Village has PLENTY of parking, it’s just not free parking. The private lots are frequently empty or only at 50% capacity, signaling that there is an issue with the price of parking, not the availability.

    While the efforts in the plan are admirable (and probably scary to many local homeowners), they are just the tip of a much larger iceberg for discussion. They leave much to be desired in terms of real logistics or plans.

    Specifically, calling out bike lanes and facilities would be a good start. The Retail Strategy has the word “bicycle” in it 5 times, once as a “conflict” for congestion and the others recognizing that it is a mode of transportation. There’s no mention of the EXISTING LADOT Great Streets Plan, bikeshare, etc.

    • Guest of a Guest

      You are correct. Westwood renters and area workers are second class citizens to the local homeowners. Westwood and UCLA’s influence off campus is bound by the homeowner’s rules and weight which are keeping the area suppressed. They don’t want live music, dancing, stand alone bars, or fast food restaurants and that’s the tip of the iceberg. So many restrictions make doing business in Westwood a drawn-out “review process”. Couple that with the overpriced costs of doing business and you make for what we have now.
      The same as you mention with parking. In order to get foot traffic in the area- and their dollars- there actually has to be something of interest to draw people in and linger. What was it that Gertrude Stein said about Oakland, CA: “there is no there there”… but there is Santa Monica, Venice, Westfield Century City, The Grove, Beverly Center, Westside Pavilion, and a burgeoning Downtown LA all drawing young people and Angeleno’s dollars.