Revitalizing Westwood

For those who remember, Westwood Village in the 1970s was a fun, hip place to shop, take in a movie or dinner or just hang out. It was quaint but sophisticated. UCLA students, faculty members and outsiders mingled in the small bookstores and one-of-a-kind jewelry and clothing shops. A lively street scene with artisans and musicians sprang up on weekends.

But little by little over the past 20 years, the charm faded. Occasional street violence scared customers away. Chain stores squeezed out the unique shops, and the recession of the early 1990s knocked out many other retailers. Westwood Village today is a home to down-and-outers and street corner orators; the retail vacancy rate is among the highest in Los Angeles.

Enter developer Ira Smedra. He believes his proposed mega-project, Village Center Westwood, can lead the village out of the doldrums. It could certainly help, and it could be a model for other retail areas beset by similar pressures. The 469,000-square-foot project would add the usual--movie theaters and retail space. But it would also give the village other important services and amenities.

The project, sited on a parking lot and a half-block now lined with storefronts, would also create a pedestrian plaza by closing part of Glendon Avenue to cars.

But because the project would increase the already large number of movie seats in the village and add more cars, some residents, merchants and other developers with designs on Westwood sites have raised fierce opposition. Some see Smedra's success as spelling their failure. Yet small as it is, the village has room for many successes, each stimulating the others. The L.A. City Council and other city agencies with approval power over the project should see past the racket to the promise of a valuable revival.

Smedra's is not the first ambitious plan for the village. Each has generated intense opposition for reasons both good and shortsighted. Now is the time for action. The probable alternative to the Village Center Westwood project is more stagnation.

The intervention of Councilman Mike Feuer and a neighborhood group he put in place has vastly improved Smedra's original idea and could make this project a model of constructive community planning. Residents would get neighborhood services they now lack, including a grocery and pharmacy and more senior housing. The developer would build and the city would then own and run a new public library, the first in Westwood.

The height and scale of the retail portion of Village Center and the number of theater seats have been cut back. The project would require parking spaces based on a ratio of one for every three movie theater seats, better than the city requirement. Traffic in Westwood, long a nightmare, would still be difficult, perhaps worse, with this project, but current plans require Smedra to spend $1.3 million to mitigate the problem.

The L.A. Planning Commission will formally consider this project in late April. Village Center Westwood is a good idea made better through hard work and public input. The old Westwood Village, the sleepy college community, is gone. A new village--thriving, safe, with something for all Angelenos and visitors from elsewhere--is possible.

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