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Westwood Village wants to be cool again

For decades, Westwood Village was the heartbeat of Los Angeles nightlife while downtown languished in solitude. Westwood had the movie theaters, fancy restaurants and bustling street traffic, and downtown was known as a quiet and intimidating place to be after dark.

These days, a humbled Westwood finds itself in the unexpected position of turning to a resurgent downtown for ideas.

Of the more than a dozen movie theaters that once stood in the village, all but three have closed down. A count this week found that about a quarter of the storefronts on the main boulevard are vacant.

After numerous failed revitalization attempts over the last two decades, Westwood is now looking to some of its neighborhood rivals for inspiration. Village leaders see how the arts have helped pump new life into downtown as well as formerly sleepy areas like Culver City.

With a new focus, Westwood is moving away from its past as an entertainment and upscale shopping mecca. Backers see the 21st century Westwood as a magnet for arts and culture, filled with galleries, museums, performance space and trendy food.

"The village is never going to go back to what it was. The village can only go forward," said Steve Sann, chairman of the Westwood Community Council, an independent nonprofit.

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The first step comes this fall when artists, craftsmen, chefs and other entrepreneurs breathe life into some of the vacant storefronts in Westwood. Ann Philbin, director of UCLA's Hammer Museum, has gotten some landowners to agree to dole out about a month's free rent so that the creative types can try their hand at running businesses that could range from crafts shops to artisanal eateries. The goal is to bring a more arts-centric sensibility to the village, which currently has mainly food and service retail.

UCLA is also exploring how to bring more of its art and culture resources into the village. A recent Anderson School of Management class studied the idea of staging some UCLA performing arts events at the now-vacant Mann Festival Theater in the village. UCLA's School of Public Affairs is working with Westwood officials to convert some parking spots on the street into "parklets" — tiny public spaces that hold bike racks, a little greenery and a bench or two. These have popped up elsewhere in the city, including downtown.

On a recent weekday afternoon, the hustle and bustle of pedestrians and cars on Westwood Boulevard contrasted sharply with the lifeless storefronts. On one particularly dreary block of the boulevard in the heart of the village, only a few stores were open, and an AT&T; store and Victoria's Secret were rare pops of color in a gray mass of glass.

Gone was the Burger King that once marked the end of the medical plaza and beginning of the village. The faded green and orange sign for an old campus favorite, Sandbag's Gourmet Sandwiches, remained bolted to a building, but the shop below was cleaned out. Blue capital letters repeated the message from one window to the next: "RETAIL SPACE AVAILABLE" or simply, "FOR LEASE."

These days, the village "just feels small and a little boring," said Brenden Hawke, a UCLA art history major.

Sitting at a Starbucks patio with their books open, UCLA anthropology major Caylee Coffman and English major Philip Lantz rattled off the problems with the campus-adjacent neighborhood: The retail doesn't target students, it's hard to hop from one spot to another because the village is so spread out and, aside from bars, there's not much to do after dark. Night life, they agreed, is sorely lacking.

"There are so many other places around L.A. that do have more to offer," Coffman said. "The Third Street Promenade, West Hollywood — they all compete with Westwood."

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In its heyday, Westwood was by some measures the hottest neighborhood in L.A. Patrons flocked to the majestic movie theaters, independent bookstores and high-end department stores, which served some of the region's elite.

But Westwood's fortunes took a turn in 1988. While walking with a friend along a crowded Westwood sidewalk, 27-year-old Karen Toshima was shot in the head and killed by a gang member aiming at a rival gang.

The streets emptied, and the crowds that once roamed the village took their wallets to nearby areas such as the Century City mall and Santa Monica's Third Street Promenade that offered multiplex theaters and a greater varierty of shopping. Bullock's, a stylish department store, was converted into a Ralphs supermarket, and movie theaters across the village closed one after another.

UCLA, meanwhile, added restaurants, stores and other amenities that left students with less reason to trek into the village.

Westwood has seen some new life in recent years, including a CityTarget and hip restaurants including 800 Degrees Neapolitan Pizzeria and U-Mini, both part of the acclaimed Umami Burger's restaurant group.

But enthusiasm about revitalization is tempered by the many failed attempts of the past.

Property owners in the village have never been able to agree on a vision for their land. Competing interests from students, residents and business owners have only complicated matters.

Joel Kotkin, an urban studies fellow at Chapman University, is skeptical that a more arts-oriented approach will work any better.

"The problem with Westwood is that it's hard to get to, and it's incredibly boring and has been for a long time," he said. "Right now, you're talking about something that's going to be there for a month."

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Downtown Los Angeles once suffered some of the same problems.

During the day, it bustled with workers. But there was little interaction between the high-rise dwellers and the street life below.

Downtown's turnaround began more than a decade ago, as some old buildings were turned into lofts. Its revitalization flourished as galleries and art spaces opened, followed by restaurants and other stores.

Carol Schatz, president and chief executive of the Central City Assn., a business advocacy organization, said the key to downtown's renaissance was an increase in housing that provided the critical mass of residents to patronize new businesses.

Westwood Village has also seen residential development in recent years, and two new projects just broke ground.

UCLA urban design think tank cityLAB developed some long-term ideas for the village in a 2011 study. One concept titled "Living Culture" has found considerable support from community leaders. It calls for UCLA to export the Fowler Museum and part of its performing arts program from campus to Westwood. It envisions a public square as the "crown jewel of the plan." And it imagines "seven slender live/work mid-rises" creating a "skyline" for drivers on the 405 Freeway.

Steven Erie, a political science professor at UC San Diego and a UCLA alumnus who has written about Los Angeles, called art and culture "the new, trendy, cutting-edge way to revitalize" but stressed that it remains to be seen whether it works.

"It's all about attracting younger, hipper, cool to these areas," Erie said.

matt.stevens@latimes.com

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