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Submission: Westwood’s walkable street culture should be prioritized

By Nate Holmes

Jan. 27, 2015 12:00 a.m.

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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