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Building on the Past for a Future Westwood

Jim Heimann, a regional historian and teacher at Art Center School of Design, is the author of "California Crazy: Roadside Vernacular Architecture" and "Out With the Stars: Hollywood Nightlife in the Golden Era."

Westwood Village has languished for most of this decade, but there are signs it is ready for a comeback. Several landmark buildings have been revamped or are being restored, including 1100 Glendon, designed by Paul R. Williams. In addition, some of the tired plastic signage covering up original 1920s and ‘30s building facades is being removed. Broxton Avenue, at the heart of the village, has been remodeled with widened sidewalks, new street furniture and public art. High-end restaurants, including Eurochow, Palomino and Tanino, are recreating some of the district’s allure. Culturally, the Geffen Playhouse was sensitively remodeled and the UCLA/Armand Hammer Museum is planning a more visible street presence with a new main entrance, prominent graphics and restaurant. Yet, despite all these elements of resurgence, Westwood still faces some key decisions if it is to regain its former vitality.

The problems Westwood faces today are not so different from those it confronted in the past. Disputes between developers and local homeowners, UCLA’s isolation from the village and a lack of parking have been stumbling blocks for decades. Fortunately, the bones of the original Westwood Village, conceived in the late 1920s, remain.

This is where Westwood has an advantage over districts such as Hollywood, where many significant structures have been eliminated, replaced by strip malls or insensitive remodels.

The low density of the village, though compromised in the 1950s through ‘70s by a flurry of high-rise construction, has been largely maintained with a majority of two- and three-story buildings that create an aura of a small-town commercial oasis.

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What is lacking is the cooperation of various Westwood factions to act cohesively and bring back the viable, lively shopping district that once serviced its primary users. By returning tothe original idea of Westwood as “a village within a city,” restoring the many vintage buildings and installing a mix of commercial venues, Westwood can accelerate its road to recovery.

The Westwood of the past should serve as a model for what a future Westwood can be. As a mixed-use shopping district, it offered a range of amenities to students, business people and nearby communities. You could grab a malted at Tom Crumplar’s, shop for the latest clothing at a variety of upscale stores such as Bullock’s and Desmond’s, bowl a few frames at the Westwood Bowling Center, pick up groceries at one of five village markets, see your broker, get your hair cut, go to the cleaners, have your shoes repaired, stop for gas at one of the seven local gas stations, see a movie, browse the latest best sellers at Campbell’s bookstore and even go ice skating year round at the outdoor Tropical Ice Gardens. All this within a few square blocks.

Housing these services was, and still is, one of Southern California’s largest collection of significant architecturally designed buildings. The list of architects responsible for village buildings reads like a who’s who of L.A. architectural history: John and Donald Parkinson (Bullock’s Wilshire), Gordon B. Kaufmann (Los Angeles Times Building), Williams (the LAX theme building), Morgan, Walls and Clements (Arco Plaza, Pellisier Building/Wiltern Theatre) and others.

The intervening years have also given the area many signature contemporary buildings, including Kanner Associates’ tribute to ‘50s jet-age architecture, the In-N-Out hamburger stand on Gayley. This remarkable collection of vintage and contemporary structures in one enclave is key to a revived Westwood Village. Maintaining this heritage while allowing for new, small-scale architectural endeavors is one path to renewal.

This architectural gold mine needs the guidance of the various stewards of the village, who need to create a plan to preserve existing historical buildings and implement and enforce architectural guidelines that will ensure the village remains just that. Alterations to existing structures should be carefully reviewed. New buildings must be integrated to the existing fabric. There should also be tax breaks and financial incentives for property owners willing to restore buildings and maintain the low density of the original plan. Streamlining procedures for those seeking renovation should be advocated by the City of Los Angeles.

Westwood Village was originally developed in the late 1920s as “a village within a city.” This was the mandate of the Janss Investment Corp., primary developer of Westwood and the surrounding area. With the groundbreaking of UCLA in 1926, an additional sobriquet was added, “a town for the gown.” The new business district would have a unified architectural theme, with architectural codes, regulated signage, underground utilities and a three-story maximum building height. The Janss Corp. would relax some of these rules during the lean years of the Depression, allowing Moderne, Hollywood Regency and other styles as well as the original “Mediterranean” motif.

But by the 1950s, when Los Angeles was growing exponentially, change was inevitable. UCLA confronted massive postwar growth and, in 1955, the Janss family sold its interest in Westwood to Arnold Kirkeby. High-rises appeared in the village and along Wilshire Boulevard, and the small-town ambience faded--advertising signs promising “Shop with ease. Ample parking,” that had stood on landscaped islands at the entrance to Westwood were removed. The completion of the nearby San Diego Freeway, in 1962, increased local traffic. Then, in 1965, the university, increasingly insular, closed through traffic along Westwood Boulevard, forcing a detour into the village for residents north of the campus.

During this period, many businesses that gave the village a community feeling were edged out by the changing economy and demographics. By the late ‘60s, Westwood was clearly in trouble. Various attempts to set guidelines for the village were proposed in the 1970s, but nothing could hold back the proliferation of movie theaters and the enclave’s change from a local retail and service center to an entertainment zone for greater Los Angeles.

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Roughly 15 years ago, Westwood was at the crest of its perceived popularity. In reality, the area had become an over-inflated entertainment area. Fast-food restaurants, T-shirt shops, video arcades and chain stores made Westwood seem like an upscale version of Hollywood Boulevard. Thousands congregated every weekend. Then gang activity and, finally, two homicides ended this phase of Westwood almost overnight. The murders, coupled with the development of shopping alternatives such as Old Town Pasadena and Santa Monica’s Third Street Promenade, helped make Westwood a virtual ghost town.

In many ways, Westwood’s current condition provides it with a clean slate, an opportunity to start anew. One sign that Westwood is about to turn around can be found at the corner of Broxton and Weyburn. This intersection, anchored by the Village and Bruin theaters, has become the village’s new focal point and offers a view of what might occur.

The El Paseo Building, opposite the theaters, has recently been restored to its 1932 state by developer Jerrold S. Felsenthal, with consulting architect Stephen Kanner. Site of the old Tom Crumplar’s malt shop, this building is now true to the original vision for Westwood. Vintage tiles line the outdoor stairway, fountains splash in the reopened patio, signage is subdued and hand-painted addresses grace the upstairs offices. The developer has been judicious in his choice of tenants, avoiding any businesses that would overtly conflict with the building’s intent. Granted, a chain restaurant, the California Pizza Kitchen, is on the ground floor, but it has been modified to fit the structure’s character. This development could be the template for the rest of Westwood.

Felsenthal’s restoration is no accident. Though an enlightened developer seems an oxymoron, maximum return for investment was not the only factor in the restoration. Valuable square footage was sacrificed to recreate the original patio and arcade plan, and expensive architectural detailing was reinstated after careful research. And now this architectural effort is paying off.

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Old Town Pasadena can be seen as the model. Most buildings there retain their architectural integrity. “Theme-ing” the area wasn’t necessary because developers saw the value in keeping the authentic elements of the district and building on them--and the public responded. The same could be true of Westwood.

While sensitive redevelopment is vital, more mundane problems such as parking have to be resolved before Westwood moves forward. Even with a new Broxton parking structure, Westwood is painfully short on accessible and affordable parking. Beverly Hills, Pasadena and Santa Monica all offer time-limited free parking, something that could be adopted by Westwood merchants. If and when evening traffic increases, shuttles from the Federal Building parking lots, which eased ‘80s congestion, could be revived. If similar arrangements with UCLA and Wilshire high-rises were made, some future parking problems could be amended. For if the parking situation is not solved, Westwood could remain moribund for another decade.

Another problem is UCLA’s relationship to the village. Village merchants and business people now see LeConte Avenue, at the school’s southern entrance, as a sort of concrete curtain. True, many faculty members and students come down to the village for meals, but that’s one of the few draws. Following trends across the country, the university has provided on-campus amenities and retail stores that keep many Bruins on campus. In the past, a mix of retail and services, plus such UCLA sponsored events as parades, made the village and the university far better neighbors. A renewed relationship could make Westwood more of a college town. By bringing back bookstores, markets, cleaners, Laundromats, barber shops, hairdressers and other services that students and faculty could use, the “town for the gown” could be resurrected.

Reigniting the successful Westwood of old remains a daunting problem. Yet, there are many indications that Westwood is on the road to recovery. Dialogue and cooperation are vital in the village’s continuing effort to reinvent itself. While it is a slow, painful process, by staying true to Westwood’s heritage, as demonstrated by the El Paseo development and other improvements, Westwood can turn around. But until conversation and compromise with all concerned parties occurs, Westwood could continue to languish--its close-up foregone for a long fade.*

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