One of the lead articles at the LA Times today is on revitalizing Westwood, and there’s a companion article at Curbed LA. Both are bemoaning how Westwood has changed, and both suggest ways out of the problem. The Times article notes how Westwood is looking to Downtown for its revitalization model, and looking to bring it more arts (think galleries), performance spaces, and trendy foods. They believe this will restore Westwood to its former glory. I think both are wrong.
Let’s explore what Westwood was, and how to bring it back.
In its heyday — the 1960s through early 1980s — Westwood was primarily a local community. It had mostly non-chain stores, and catered to the people living in West LA, H0lmby Hills, and Bel Air. It also catered heavily to the student community at UCLA. It had quaint restaurants, and lots of movie theatres that tended to host premieres (because Hollywood had gotten sketchy).
In the mid 1980s, Westwood began to die. Most attribute the death to a gang shooting in 1988 and an incident where some clown drove on the sidewalk (we were actually in Westwood that evening with clients when it happened). However, that’s not what killed Westwood. What killed Westwood was rising rents, “mallification” (that is, takeover by the chain stores with “trendy” clothes), and corporate consolidations that removed classic entities (such as bookstores). Further, the single screen theatres that Westwood had were no longer profitable… so they started closing. In short, what killed Westwood was that it became a mall — just like any other mall — and lost its audience for newer malls.
Westwood was also hurt by poor accessibility, especially with the continuous construction on the 405. Downtown is now accessible via MetroRail, but Westwood won’t have that for at least another decade or two. You have to drive to Westwood, and that’s increasingly difficult. What this means is that, to succeed, Westwood must focus on the locals, not drawing from elsewhere.
So what does Westwood really need to do to come back? First, it doesn’t need art galleries and super trendy joints. These do not attract students and the middle class that used to shop in Westwood all the time. Put the art galleries in Beverly Hills. Here’s what I think Westwood needs:
- More Live Theatre. Although the single-screen movie theatre is out of vogue, live theatre is inherently single-screen. Westwood should work on expanding its live theatre presence, especially with relationships with the excellent theatre program at UCLA. Get some small storefront theatres (there are at least two major companies in LA (Celebration is one) that are looking for new spaces). Small theatres are also much more affordable for students (especially when compared with the only theatre currently in Westwood, the Geffen).
- More Club Space. I don’t necessarily meet nightclub space, although having a local space that would appear to the UCLA student crowd would be great. I was thinking more along the lines of comedy and music clubs, that could attract stand up and local acts.
- Be a Student Town. This needs to be the mantra regarding both food and shopping. Bring in quirky restaurants and shops, but keep them affordable for students (and if you can, accept UCLA meal plan points). I grew up in the days when Westwood had wonderful places such as Yesterdays, Old World, Annas, Bratskeller, and others. We need to get this style of place back.
- Aim for the Eclectic. What makes a college town special is its eclectic nature. You never know what you will find, and it is most certainly not a mall. There needs to be enough going on in Westwood to draw the students out of the dorms, and to draw the neighbors into the shops.
Basically, Westwood will succeed again if you can attract the students back, and they start bringing their friends. That’s what has always made Westwood special.