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Merchants join in bid to give Westwood Village a brighter future

A new business improvement district is cleaning up the neighborhood, which has struggled economically for years. UCLA is a contributor. 'You feel a good energy,' says one longtime store owner.

November 13, 2011|By Martha Groves, Los Angeles Times
  • A man digs through a trash can in Westwood Village on Monday. The new improvement district has begun having trash picked up, freshly trimmed branches decked with lights and thousands of inky chewing-gum splotches scrubbed off the walkways.
A man digs through a trash can in Westwood Village on Monday. The new improvement… (Christina House, For the…)

After years of watching Westwood Village deteriorate into a zone of overgrown trees and empty storefronts, retailers here said they saw a glimmer of hope recently as cleaning crews began power-scrubbing the district's grimy sidewalks.

A new business improvement district — Westwood's first in nearly a decade — has begun having trash picked up, freshly trimmed branches decked with lights and thousands of inky chewing-gum splotches scrubbed off the walkways.

The district has also employed a cadre of polo-shirted "public safety ambassadors" — some of whom patrol the village on Segways — to provide directions to visitors and roust the neighborhood's entrenched ranks of homeless people. The next step will be nudging merchants to move their "50% off" signs and clothing racks indoors.

PHOTOS: Working on Westwood

"You feel a good energy," said Wendy Shane, co-owner of Shanes Jewelry on Broxton Avenue. "We have been on this street for 40 years, and I don't think Broxton has ever looked so good."

Shane and other Westwood Village boosters say they also look forward to the planned opening next July of a Target store that promises to lure many of UCLA's 70,000 students and employees.

Until recently, good news had been in short supply.

Since its heyday in the 1970s and '80s, Westwood Village has struggled economically. Limited parking, the rise of Internet commerce and a widely publicized fatal gang shooting in 1988 quieted much of the area's commercial buzz.

Today, Westwood Boulevard, the main drag, has a 30% vacancy rate, according to a report by a UCLA think tank, while the rate in the village overall is 22%, far higher than in Beverly Hills' Golden Triangle, Westfield Century City shopping center or Santa Monica's Third Street Promenade.

A previous effort to create a business improvement district ended disastrously. That failed district collected $2.5 million in assessments for fiscal years 2000 through 2002 but ended up in the red, unable to account for hundreds of thousands of dollars. It was discontinued in October 2002. A 2004 city audit blamed the city clerk's office for failing to supervise the organization and suggested that funds had been spent improperly.

Despite some lingering bitterness over that debacle, village property owners agreed to create the new business improvement district and provide it with an annual $1.3-million budget.

"We're here to make sure Westwood Village is clean and safe, so people are comfortable coming here," said Andrew Thomas, executive director of the new Westwood Village Improvement Assn.

Westwood Village opened in 1929 as a carefully planned Mediterranean-themed adjunct to the new southern branch of the University of California. Since then, UCLA has grown and developed its own commercial offerings, which compete directly with Westwood Village businesses.

Though this has inspired some resentment among Westwood business owners, the university says it strives to be a good neighbor. Jack Powazek, UCLA's administrative vice chancellor, said he worked closely with other stakeholders to get the improvement district going and serves on the board. Although exempt under state law, UCLA is contributing $38,000 a year.

Also, UCLA's cityLAB, a think tank within the Department of Architecture and Urban Design, has gotten involved in an effort to revive Westwood. Architects presented two ideas for the village at a recent symposium at the Hammer Museum in Westwood.

The plans envision residential towers mixing with commercial and cultural entities in a pedestrian-oriented neighborhood well served by public transit — including, eventually, a subway. (For more information, visit the cityLAB website)

"We know Westwood and UCLA are tied together," Powazek said. "We're putting some money where our mouth is during very difficult financial times."

PHOTOS: Working on Westwood

martha.groves@latimes.com

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