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WESTSIDE / COVER STORY : Getting Hip to the Strip : With Its Hundreds of Upscale Shops and Restaurants, Brentwood Has Become a Hot Spot While Businesses and Residents Struggle to Cope With New-Found Fame

August 14, 1994|MARY MOORE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The Simpson saga may have put Brentwood on national maps overnight, but the neighborhood had become a destination point for locals long before the media blitz.

Much of that local attention has centered on the San Vicente Boulevard strip, a half-mile stretch from Bundy Drive to Wilshire Boulevard lined with about 300 upscale shops and restaurants that have made the area one of the Westside's most desirable social enclaves.

With its leafy coral trees dotting a grassy median, where years ago red street cars ran from Brentwood down to the ocean, business people have been drawn to a small-town atmosphere not easy to find in Los Angeles.

Officially known as the San Vicente Scenic Corridor, it has managed to thrive, mainly due to its array of restaurants, while neighboring Westwood Village, a trendy shopping and movie theater district that once drew throngs on weekend nights, has struggled in recent years--the victim, some say, of its own success.

"People are trying to recapture the magic that Westwood once had," said Jack Kyser, chief economist for the Economic Development Corp. of Los Angeles County. "They're looking for warm and fuzzy areas, and they seem to have found it in Brentwood."

Real estate agents say San Vicente has become one of the top locations for retail and office projects on the Westside.

"It has the highest demand and the lowest vacancy rates," said David Thind, a Brentwood-based broker who handles real estate across the city.

Business people are drawn to an area in large part due to its reputation for low-crime and high life.

The Simpson case notwithstanding, Brentwood has one of the lowest crime rates in the city, said Los Angeles Police Capt. Connie Dial, who heads patrols in the West Los Angeles area. The area also includes some of the city's wealthiest residents, who live in some of the region's priciest homes. Real estate brokers say the average price for single-family homes on the market is $1.4 million, with the average condo going for $280,950.

Restaurants have gained the most from San Vicente's recent growth, with 50-minute waits for tables at most establishments on typical evenings. Restaurants account for about 10% of the commercial space on the strip.

Yet, while restaurants offering haute and lean cuisine have flourished, the smaller mom-and-pop businesses that lent the area a hometown feel have not been as successful of late. The recession has left an abundance of homes for sale on the shady side streets leading from the boulevard, meaning fewer residents for the businesses that cater to such traffic. In addition, the arrival of large chain stores has compounded trouble for some smaller shopkeepers.

Arian Moini, pharmacist at Westside Pharmacy since 1982, said the neighborhood drugstore has been struggling for business since a Long's Drugs store moved in last year, less than half a mile away.

"We can blame it on the recession or on Long's, but I think it's got to do with a lot of people moving out of the neighborhood," Moini said.

Nevertheless, other pedestrian traffic has surged since Nicole Brown Simpson, former wife of O.J. Simpson, and her friend Ronald Lyle Goldman were found murdered June 13 on the steps of her South Bundy Drive condo not far from the strip.

Much of the curiosity has centered on Mezzaluna, the San Vicente Boulevard restaurant where Goldman worked as a waiter and where Nicole Simpson dined the night before they both were killed. It now bulges with customers every night of the week.

Other establishments have experienced an uptick as well.

"There are a lot of tourists driving around," said Dale Greenblatt, general manager of Gratis, one of the area's newest restaurants. "The minute (O.J. Simpson) was caught, people showed up and the crowds picked up."

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San Vicente's look, generally storefronts with conservative lettering and lighting with some sidewalk dining, is owed to two vigilant groups that guard against gaudy signs and other garish architectural features.

This is not a street where a McDonald's would fit.

The two groups, the Design Review Board, whose members are chosen by Los Angeles City Councilman Marvin Braude, a Brentwood resident, and the Brentwood Homeowners Assn., make recommendations to the city Planning Department on prospective San Vicente businesses. The advice is usually heeded.

Together they have prevented tacky signs, unsightly buildings and other eyesores from cropping up on the boulevard.

"Low density, beauty and substantial public benefit, that's what I'm concerned about," Braude said.

After 29 years in office, Braude's influence is apparent. San Vicente merchants recall how he helped persuade his City Council colleagues in 1992 to exempt Brentwood from an ordinance that created mandatory no-parking tow-away zones during the evening rush hour along most of the area's most heavily traveled streets.

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