We all can admit Westwood Village has a relevancy problem.
Empty storefronts lace the streets, and it’s hard to miss the vacancy notices straddling the sidewalk. The Village’s spotty assortment of businesses has made residents look elsewhere for not just their entertainment, but also their food and retail needs.
For a long time, Westwood’s stagnation was tied to its Specific Plan, the document detailing the development standards, land use and types of businesses allowed into the neighborhood. The restrictive plan – last updated in 2004 – has held onto more traditional interpretations of businesses, meaning newer restaurant models and services have been excluded or disincentivized from entering the scene.
Diddy Riese Cookies, for example, which clearly intends for customers to order their cookies to-go, is classified as a fast food, eating up a zoning slot that could be used for a fast food outlet.
The Westwood Village Improvement Association, in its latest attempt to update its business classification scheme, bring in more enticing services and curb the Village’s ongoing vacancy problem, proposed several amendments that include loosening restrictions on what the neighborhood considers a restaurant so that it isn’t inundated with so-called fast-food joints.
WVIA’s changes are promising, but only the first in the many needed to cultivate a diverse business palette in the Village. Westwood has long been prone to copycat services, even with the restrictions imposed by the Specific Plan, and its 38 vacancies don’t just need any restaurant or store setting up shop – they need enticing vendors who can offer something new to the community.
You don’t need to look hard to see the Village’s redundant businesses: Westwood has three Starbucks – four if you count the one inside Ralphs – and sports two drugstores on the same street.
And when stores aren’t sharing the same brand, they’re closing in record time. The association estimates around 16 percent of storefronts are vacant, but even occupied spaces still juggle businesses that rarely stick. KONY Pizza, lasting a whopping eight or so months in the Village, joined Pieology and longtime pizzeria juggernaut 800 Degrees by closing shop last fall. A new pizzeria is slated to replace 800 Degrees, adding to the nearly half a dozen others in the area.
Andrew Thomas, WVIA director, said the association has been pushing the city to update the Specific Plan to address these kinds of concerns since 2011. The specific changes the city’s planning department will now consider were first introduced in 2017 after the city prodded the association for suggestions for updates.
Westwood’s recent history has largely consisted of experiments by local leaders trying to revitalize the Village, and this board welcomes Thomas’ and the newly minted North Westwood Neighborhood Council’s efforts to unshackle the chained-up business scene in UCLA’s home turf.
But it’s going to take more than some clerical updates to end Westwood’s revolving door and fill its vacancies with diverse, quality services. Landlords, who the association depends on to bring in businesses, seem more inclined to let the Village rot with empty spaces, and these stakeholders need to be engaged alongside the loosening Specific Plan rules to ensure the neighborhood is truly revitalized.
Otherwise, community leaders will be in for a rude surprise when they find they’re welcoming another three Starbucks or CVS pharmacies.