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Survey finds most Westwood stakeholders favor easing Village Specific Plan restrictions

Local neighborhood councils distributed a survey that found the majority of respondents support changing city rules to combat the high commercial vacancy rate in Westwood. (Daily Bruin file photo)

By Emmi Deckard

Sept. 4, 2020 4:36 p.m.

Westwood Village associations and a Los Angeles city official are fighting vacancies in the Village by collaborating to potentially amend its business regulations.

A survey distributed in part by the Westwood Village Improvement Association found that of the 2,519 respondents, most of whom were from Westwood, around 60% supported some degree of changes to the Westwood Village Specific Plan, a document that regulates the entrance of new businesses into Westwood Village.

The Specific Plan places quotas on fast food and restaurants, requires businesses to provide a specific number of parking spots based on size and limits bars and live entertainment in the Village.

Westwood residents formed the Specific Plan in 1989. Since then, the plan has been amended twice, most recently in 2004. However, some Westwood stakeholders have pointed to the strictness of the Specific Plan as a cause for the Village’s high commercial vacancy rate, which has risen from about 20% to around 30% since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Both the WVIA and North Westwood Neighborhood Council have made efforts to amend the Specific Plan since 2017 and 2018, respectively.

In July, the WVIA recommended that LA City Councilmember Paul Koretz suspend the majority of the Specific Plan’s regulations. Koretz requested the WVIA create a survey to poll stakeholders of the Village to determine the demand for change in the community.

A majority of the respondents, around 80%, said that bars and establishments that offer live entertainment or dancing should not need to have an accompanying restaurant to open in the Village, which is required under the Specific Plan.

Of the people who responded to the survey, 55% identified as people who work at or attend UCLA.

The Specific Plan also limits the number of fine dining and fast-food eateries that can exist on each street, which about 90% of survey respondents agreed was not necessary.

Respondents also preferred no restrictions or less restrictions on the categorization of eateries as fast food or fine dining and the quotas assigned to each, with 73% of people who took the survey deeming them unnecessary.

Andrew Thomas, WVIA executive director, said that although the WVIA distributed similar surveys in the past, none have been as widely distributed or have received as many responses.

Thomas said he was not surprised by the survey’s results, as he believes that changes in today’s business world are not reflected in the Specific Plan.

For example, fast-casual restaurants, which are restaurants that provide fresh, higher-quality food than fast food in an informal sit-down setting, did not widely exist in 1989 and are not accounted for in the plan, Thomas said. As a result, restaurants like Tender Greens and Tocaya Organica are grouped in with fast food based on the Specific Plan, but across the street from Wilshire Boulevard – where the Specific Plan does not apply – they might be considered restaurants, he added.

The plan only allows for 77 restaurants and 40 fast-food storefronts in Westwood Village. There are more than 50 restaurant vacancies in Westwood, but because of the inflexible definition of a restaurant in the Specific Plan, neither fast-casual nor fast-food businesses can fill these vacancies because they are over their quota.

Various other restrictions and quotas in Westwood push businesses to other commercial districts instead of Westwood because they can’t comply with the standards of the Specific Plan, Thomas said.

“The Specific Plan is so detailed that it hasn’t allowed us to grow,” Thomas said. “That’s why we have turned away businesses that want to open in our Village. It’s frustrating, especially during this COVID-19 time when so many businesses are struggling.”

The vacancies in the Village are chronic due largely to the Specific Plan, said Michael Skiles, president of the NWWNC. Some storefronts have sat vacant for over a decade in the Village, he added.

“In other communities, when one business leaves, another business can come and take its place,” Skiles said. “But because of the Specific Plan’s restrictions, it’s almost impossible for that to happen.”

Skiles said the problems with the Specific Plan go deeper than the de facto ban on fast-casual and fast-food. Regulations also make it difficult for businesses like gyms, used bookstores and bars to reside in the Village, he added.

Aidan Arasasingham, the Undergraduate Students Association Council external vice president, said the Specific Plan reduces the affordable options available to students, especially for dining and groceries, as well as limits entertainment and nightlife options.

Since students are a large population that live, work and play in the community, their needs should be considered, said Arasasingham, a fourth-year global studies student.

Arasasingham said he hopes that the vibrant community engagement in Westwood of the ’70s and ’80s will be restored and Westwood will again become the place to be.

“This beautiful, historic Village around us should be the community that we should be spending our time in and enjoying ourselves, and contributing to with our wallets,” Arasasingham said. “Unfortunately, we can’t do that because it’s just so expensive.”

Thomas said Koretz’s office has received the results of the survey.

“The stakeholders have spoken, … Westwood has spoken, and let’s see what our elected officials are going to do about it,” Thomas said.

Koretz’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

“At the end of the day, when students come back to campus and the pandemic is over, there is going to be as much demand for places to eat and go out and have a good time in Westwood as there ever was,” Skiles said. “But, either there will be new restaurants to take the place of old ones, or there will be a tremendous missed opportunity and students will come back to a college town that is largely dead.”

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