Light-rail passenger service returned to Culver City last month after a nearly 60-year break, speeding the evolution of the formerly insulated bedroom community into an urban hub of business and revelry.
Hundreds of millions of dollars' worth of real estate development are in the pipeline, including a project linked to the new Expo Line that would contain apartments, stores and a hotel. Restaurant operators have been so keen on opening in the gentrifying downtown that rents for retail space didn't decline during the economic downturn as they did in most markets.
"I never saw rents dip because demand always exceeded supply," real estate broker Zac Card said.
Monthly retail rents can hit $6 per square foot, putting the price of doing business there on a par with popular Main Street in Santa Monica.
The renaissance is at risk of stalling, however. City leaders are worried that because state officials dissolved local redevelopment agencies earlier this year, Culver City will be unable to support development that would capitalize on the rail line.
"We are in limbo trying to determine whether the state will require more from us or whether we can go ahead with these projects," Councilman Jim Clarke said.
Culver City's reputation as a pedestrian-friendly destination with upscale restaurants, gastropubs and a thriving art scene is less than a decade old, local observers said.
The low-key linear city evolved along railroad lines and roads connecting downtown Los Angeles with Abbot Kinney's resort city Venice, making it a self-contained outpost in the early 20th century. Its personality, however, lost luster after World War II as it was engulfed by sprawling Los Angeles.
The presence of famed movie studios including the former Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer headquarters always provided some glamour, but when car dealerships started replacing former roadhouses and speak-easies in the 1950s, Culver City took on a decidedly suburban vibe.
Through the years, Culver Boxing Stadium was replaced with a shopping center, and a Costco stands on the site of the Culver Dog Track, where greyhounds and later cars raced. The Culver City Airport, where city founder Harry Culver kept his own plane? Closed to make way for a supermarket and Earl Scheib auto painting outlet.
With the cessation of train service in the 1950s and the 1965 opening of the Santa Monica Freeway, Culver City became a bit of an island, Clarke said, with its own police force and conservative sensibility.
The commercial real estate market changed direction around 2000 with the creation of daring, sometimes outlandish office buildings designed by Eric Owen Moss in the formerly industrial Hayden Tract, on the eastern edge of town. City officials also went to work renovating downtown public spaces such as sidewalks and medians, trying to attract new businesses.
In the mid-2000s, Clarke said, "I left this sleepy bedroom community, and I came back four years later and there were three wine bars."
Others followed and a Culver City scene emerged that attracts a young crowd to its bars and restaurants. Considering that for decades few 20-somethings would have thought to head to Culver City for fun, that's a good thing, Clarke said.
"Those young visitors will say maybe this is a great place to live and work," Clarke said. "We need to regenerate neighborhoods with young people."
But Clarke and other leaders want downtown to be more than a food-and-beverage playground. It needs other retail outlets such as stores that aren't typically found in nearby malls.
"Culver City has free parking structures and restaurants, but not enough apparel and soft goods such as furniture, skate shops, surf shops and bike shops," said real estate broker Card of CBRE Group Inc.
Several real estate developments were put into planning before the state swooped in on community redevelopment funds and created doubts about whether developers would be able to get title to land they hoped to buy from the city.
One of the largest planned developments is at a triangular site at Venice, National and Washington boulevards where the Expo Line stops. Train passengers can't see much there now besides a parking lot, but Los Angeles developer Lowe Enterprises was selected by the city to build a 5-acre complex with stores, offices, apartments and a 150-room hotel.
"Culver City has had a renaissance downtown and in the arts district," said Thomas Wulf of Lowe Enterprises. "We are in the middle and want to be the bridge that links those."
The four- or five-story project valued at as much as $200 million is intended to be active about 18 hours a day, with stores and entertainment meant for commuters and nearby residents. Lowe Enterprises, which built and operates the Terranea Resort in Rancho Palos Verdes, would also run the boutique hotel.
"Right now the only true hotel is the old 40-room Culver Hotel where the Munchkins stayed" during filming of the 1939 movie"The Wizard of Oz,"Wulf said. "Most visitors have to stay in Century City or Santa Monica because they can't stay nearby."
If the process goes as expected, Lowe will complete its development plans in the fall, navigate the city's approval process and deliver the yet-to-be-named project by 2015 or 2016.
Timing is crucial, Councilman Clarke said. Culver City should strive to maintain its small-community character while trying to build itself into an attractive destination for shopping and recreation, but haste is required.
Right now Culver City is the last stop for Expo Line trains from L.A.'s financial district, but construction is underway to bring service to Santa Monica by 2015. That means Culver City has a window of time to impress riders who pass through it as their main portal to rail service.
"Once the line goes all the way to Santa Monica, we are going to be a stop on the line like any other," Clarke said. "We can attract people from downtown and the Westside, or we will just be a parking lot or another stop along the way."