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Potential zoning revisions to beckon business to Village’s vacant storefronts

The Westwood Village Specific Plan, the master planning document that outlines zoning regulations, may be updated soon. (Daily Bruin file photo)

By Andrew Fortin-Caldera

Feb. 12, 2019 1:13 a.m.

Westwood Village may be able to fill vacant storefronts and bring in new businesses by loosening restrictions on dining and parking requirements.

The Westwood Village Improvement Association, a nonprofit organization tasked with improving the state of the Village, submitted amendments to the Westwood Village Specific Plan, the master planning document that outlines zoning regulations. The amendments seek to relax food definitions and parking requirements for current and prospective businesses in Westwood Village.

The Los Angeles City Council voted Jan. 30 to approve a motion directing the Department of City Planning to conduct a review of the Westwood Specific Plan and the WVIA’s amendments. The council’s decision was finalized Feb. 1, and the Department of City Planning has 90 days to report back regarding its recommendations for the plan and the WVIA’s amendments.

Andrew Thomas, executive director of the association, said the motion signals a significant achievement for the WVIA and the Village.

“We’ve been working on this since about 2011, and this is as far as we’ve ever come,” Thomas said. “When the City Council made its motion to ask the planning department to make recommendations for the amendments, that was a big moment for our village.”

Thomas said the specific plan’s current food definitions rigidly define the characteristics of restaurants and fast-food chains, providing a list of five conditions food establishments must meet to be distinguished as a restaurant. The conditions include providing table service and having customers pay after eating. If the establishment does not satisfy all five conditions, it is categorized as a fast-food establishment instead.

Thomas said current regulations prevent new businesses from opening in the Village, as they make no distinction between traditional fast-food franchises like Taco Bell and fast-casual restaurants that serve food meant for off-site consumption, such as Starbucks and Yogurtland.

“Under the specific plan, you’re either McDonald’s or Ruth’s Chris Steak House, and there’s really no in-between,” Thomas said. “It has restricted what types of food-uses can lease in the district because so many of the establishments that want to come here are these fast-casual restaurants.”

A 2002 amendment to the specific plan limits the number of food establishments allowed to operate in the Village area to 40 fast-food establishments and 77 restaurants.

However, Thomas said the allotted number of fast-food establishments had already been exceeded by the time the limits were enacted by the city of Los Angeles. Current WVIA estimates place the number of fast-food establishments at 56 and the number of restaurants at 29.

Hagu Solomon-Cary, planning deputy for Los Angeles City Councilmember Paul Koretz, who represents Westwood Village, said the plan’s requirements are restrictive to new establishments.

“The cap the specific plan puts on fast food has been a challenge for businesses wishing to open in the Village in some instances,” Solomon-Cary said.

The WVIA’s proposed amendments seek to reduce the number of conditions a food establishment must meet to be labeled a restaurant, or remove the distinction between restaurants and fast food entirely.

Thomas said loosening the specific plan’s restrictions will reduce the surplus of fast-food establishments and allow willing businesses to occupy some of the area’s vacancies under the restaurant label. The WVIA estimates that 38 of the Village’s 237 storefronts are currently vacant.

“I get calls from (businesses) all the time expressing interest in moving in and asking if it’s possible, and then I have to tell them about the specific plan,” Thomas said. “It’s troubling for me to have to turn businesses away that want to come and open in Westwood Village, especially when we have these vacancies that have been here for such a long time.”

The specific plan also requires any new business to provide a certain amount of parking if it moves into a vacant space and changes its use. For instance, if a retail store moves into a vacant space that was originally meant for food use, the new store would require four parking spaces for every 1,000 square feet of floor area it possesses.

Thomas said new businesses are left with two possible courses of action to provide the parking required by the specific plan. The first is to demolish existing structures on a property to build parking spaces, and the second would be to enter into an agreement with another business that would provide parking on its own premises to the new business.

The WVIA’s amendments propose to eliminate the parking requirements for businesses moving into vacant spaces previously intended for other uses and re-evaluate the parking requirements for new developments in the Village area.

Ryan Snyder, an urban planning professor and a member of the North Westwood Neighborhood Council, said such requirements prevent interested businesses from leasing in the Village due to the associated costs and logistics.

“In many places, this has been an impediment for new operations to come in, because there really isn’t a space to put new parking, and even if you could, it would be extremely expensive to do so,” Snyder said.

Thomas added in addition to the prohibitive costs of creating new parking, neighboring businesses are likely to use whatever parking they possess for themselves and therefore be unwilling to share with new businesses seeking parking spaces. He said these factors contribute to the persistent vacancy of many storefronts in the Village, such as the former Mann Festival Theater, which closed in 2009.

“You couldn’t go to the Festival Theater and turn it into a restaurant without triggering the parking requirements,” Thomas said. “That space has been vacant now for years, and it’s going to stay that way until someone can get around the parking requirements.”

Snyder said the WVIA’s ultimate desire is to provide the Village community with a greater variety of amenities that are well-suited to the area.

“The WVIA wants to bring in good businesses that complement the Westwood Village and fit in with what’s already operating,” Snyder said. “The goal is to serve the community and cater to the needs of the people there.”

Solomon-Cary said Koretz’s office hopes Westwood can be revitalized with the proposed changes.

“The District (5) office hopes that the planning department’s report can do its part to bring the Village into a modern version of how it was in its heyday,” Solomon-Cary said.

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Andrew Fortin-Caldera
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