Cultivating Culver City

Times Staff Writer

Factories, oil derricks and houses were sprouting all over Southern California in 1913 when Harry H. Culver outlined his plan for a city midway between Los Angeles and Abbot Kinney’s seaside resort. “If you draw a straight line from [downtown’s] Story building to the oceanfront at Venice,” he told the gentlemen of the private California Club, “at the halfway mark you will find three intersecting electric lines -- the logical center for . . . a town site.”

His Culver Investment Co. bused potential lot buyers to free picnics, awarded parcels to the parents of pretty babies and placed newspaper ads reading “All roads lead to Culver City.”

Nearly a century later, the electric rail lines are long gone, but Culver City, denigrated in years past as a backwater on the Westside, is starting to live up to its founder’s hype.


In recent years, dozens of galleries, design houses and architecture firms have moved in. Wine bars and upscale eateries -- many with alfresco dining -- are garnering raves, and more restaurants are in the works.

Young families and singles are replacing retirees, and developers are demolishing duplexes to build condos. Rising office rents reflect the discovery by high-tech, media and creative employers -- Symantec, National Public Radio, the Tennis Channel, Ogilvy & Mather -- of a well-situated alternative to pricier Santa Monica or Beverly Hills.

City officials and many residents cheer the cultural and culinary renaissance in the city’s downtown and the ongoing commercial revival there and in other pockets. But detractors contend that the once sleepy hamlet is paying a steep price in increased traffic, congestion and competition for parking spots that not long ago seemed plentiful. Downtown businesses are clamoring for a valet parking plan.

“We’ve become a victim of our own success,” said Andrew Weissman, a Culver City planning commissioner who is among nine candidates vying in Tuesday’s election for three City Council seats.


Density and traffic

As in much of the region, the overriding issues on the minds of Culver City voters are development, density and traffic -- the slow midday crawl on Sepulveda Boulevard or the weekend evening jam-ups where what is purported to be the world’s shortest Main Street joins Culver and Washington boulevards in the city’s core. Commuter cut-through traffic compounds the woes.

“What’s been happening in Culver City is an enormous amount of development,” said Judith Miller, a resident battling a developer’s plan for 26 condos and office space with below-ground parking next to her Spanish colonial revival house, a city-designated landmark near City Hall. “The council members also make up the redevelopment agency and have been historically predisposed to development without being responsive to the community’s concerns.”

One redevelopment official countered that the new businesses provide much-needed revenue and a sense of vitality at a time when Sacramento is threatening to cut funding to cities.

“It’s been fascinating to see the evolution from having no identity, to struggling to achieve an identity, and now we’ve achieved it and are struggling to deal with that identity,” said Todd Tipton, redevelopment administrator. “It’s taking some effort to come to terms with this as [the city] grows and prospers.”


‘Run-down things’

In years past, residents of Culver City, population 40,000, might have welcomed packed sidewalks and thoroughfares.

“When I moved there in 1993, there wasn’t a restaurant to be had,” said Laura Stuart, a resident of the Sunkist Park neighborhood near the 405-90 freeway interchange in southwestern Culver City. “Downtown was pool halls and run-down things.”

It wasn’t always that way. Founder Harry Culver had emphasized the need for a solid economic base. The motion picture industry, which in the 1920s and ‘30s found the city’s wide-open spaces ideal for back lots and filming, was a boon.

Enticed by Culver, Thomas Ince had built the town’s first studio, Ince/Triangle Studios -- later Goldwyn Studios and then Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. (Since 1990, the lot has been the headquarters of Sony Pictures Entertainment, which employs 3,300 people in or near Culver City.)

Hal Roach Studios filmed Laurel and Hardy silent comedies around town. Other movies filmed there include “Meet Me in St. Louis,” “Citizen Kane,” “Gone With the Wind” and “The Wizard of Oz.”

But by the early 1990s the city had lost most of the military, aviation and entertainment jobs that had created a strong local economy, if not a scintillating social scene. Much of the city became blighted.

In 1992, “other managers told me our basic job was to slow the rate of decline,” said Mark Winogrond, then the director of community development who was later credited with implementing the downtown revitalization. “I viewed Culver City as a town trapped in 1958 trying desperately to get into the 1970s.”

Even though Culver City’s motto continued to be “The Heart of Screenland,” Winogrond said, some residents had grown distant from the city’s rich history as a production hub for motion pictures and television.

The revival plan aimed to celebrate that connection. It called for downtown to be bookended on one end by Sony and the Kirk Douglas Theatre (a lovingly refurbished former movie palace) and on the other by Culver Studios and the Actors’ Gang Ivy Substation. Movie theaters, long absent, would help lure patrons, for whom public garages would provide ample free parking.

With the city providing incentives, such as helping to negotiate favorable leases and pay for remodeling, businesses gradually repopulated the area.

Meanwhile, developers Frederick and Laurie Samitaur Smith were revamping the Hayden Tract, the largely abandoned industrial sector along National Boulevard just east of downtown. Architect Eric Owen Moss’ futuristic designs for what the Smiths call Conjunctive Points attracted postproduction companies and Internet-related firms. More recently, the captive audience of office workers, as well as the prospect that the light-rail Expo Line could soon be transporting commuters along National, has helped spur the opening of trendy cafes.


Rules revised

Redevelopment officials also have their sights on the area near Westfield Fox Hills, a shopping center in southern Culver City that’s undergoing a $160-million face-lift. Nearby, developer Robert Champion floated ideas for building a massive mixed-use project on an arguably underused stretch of Sepulveda that features tire shops, banks and other businesses.

Leery of traffic, neighbors revolted and Champion backed off. Sensitive to the opposition, the City Council revised a mixed-use ordinance to scale back the allowable heights and densities.

Bonnie Zucker and her husband, Eric Magnuson, who moved to Culver City five years ago, say they enjoy the downtown’s new walkability and hope that the metamorphosis continues.

“Clearly, Culver City is on the rise and will continue to be,” said Zucker, a UCLA psychologist.

For Akasha Richmond, who recently opened her namesake restaurant in a landmark brick building downtown, Culver City sparks comparisons that would have been unthinkable in Harry Culver’s day.

“I feel the collective energy of all the creative people in the area,” Richmond said, “just like in New York.”



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