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Westwood Village freshens up with a clean sweep

After years of demoralizing decline, Westwood Village is getting its groove on — and not a moment too soon for the holidays. Sporting scrubbed-down sidewalks, a fresh coat of paint and newly trimmed trees twinkling with lights, the village also now offers perky "hospitality ambassadors" and an on-call maintenance crew. Adding to the area’s profile is a revitalized farmers market on Broxton Avenue every Thursday afternoon, a new time slot that makes for a seamless segue once a month to the block-party-like Westwood Live.
Westwood's new "ambassadors" keep the village clean, help visitors find their way and even work with the homeless.
Credit for these dramatic changes goes to the newly formed Westwood Business Improvement District (BID), hard at work to change the face of a community that UCLA and its neighbors call home. Also contributing to the new vibe are the Westwood Community Council, which spearheaded Westwood Live last spring, as well as the Westwood Neighborhood Council.
People are taking notice of the improvements, said Clinton Schudy, owner of Oakley’s Barber Shop, who has watched Westwood’s struggles with mounting frustration for more than a decade. The neighborhood’s problems — from a growing homeless population to a maintenance company that reneged on its responsibilities years ago — led to fewer shoppers and shuttered storefronts.
Today, Schudy said, "I have a lot of clients telling me they see a huge difference in just the past few weeks." Not only are they happy to see the area cleaned up, he added, "but they feel there’s promise that Westwood might have something to offer again."
That "something…again" harkens back to Westwood’s status in the 1970s and '80s as "a premium retail and visitor destination," as Los Angeles City Councilmember Paul Koretz puts it. Koretz, who represents Westwood, worked with council colleagues and the Office of the City Clerk for two years to create the Westwood BID. After it was signed into law, the public-private partnership — UCLA Administrative Vice Chancellor Jack Powazek holds a seat on the board along with business and property owners — launched this past summer with a three-year contract and $1.3 million in funding from property taxes.
“Westwood has suffered both from economic disinvestment and the decline in city services," said Koretz. "It has been hard to reverse these issues in the midst of a national economic downturn, but now things are greatly improved with the presence of an organization focused directly on the village. Westwood has not looked this inviting in years."
"As I like to say, we’re paying attention," said Andrew Thomas, executive director of BID, who previously served as operations manager for Santa Monica’s business improvement district, which encompassed the popular Third Street Promenade. First on BID’s agenda has been beautification – from scrubbing grimy sidewalks wadded with black bits of gum to replacing broken benches and streetlamps.
"The area has been neglected for a long time," Thomas said. "During our first week, we pulled out literally a ton of garbage," digging deep into alleys and storm drains. Cleanup is ongoing, from daily litter pickup to pressure-washing of streets and sidewalks. "There’s a visible improvement," Thomas said, adding, "and it smells better."
Vincent Wong agrees. Assistant director of UCLA Government and Community Relations, Wong tracks Westwood issues. "If you’re visiting Westwood and you see lots of vacant businesses and trash and litter on the streets, you’re not going to want to come back.” Revitalization efforts, he said, "are going great," giving impetus to the goal of bringing neighbors and UCLA faculty, staff and students into the area — "to make Westwood a draw."
Also nurturing that hope for a turnaround is the much-anticipated opening next year of a Target Store. Renovation work on the old Design Expo location has already begun.
Helping "sell" the village are Westwood’s new hospitality ambassadors, hired by BID. Dressed in blue polo shirts, the concierge-like crew — some cruise along on Segways — is out seven days a week, helping visitors find anything from a great cheeseburger to the closest ATM. Ambassadors also report burned-out streetlamps and other maintenance problems as well as pick up litter.
After the recent windstorm, Schudy recalled, "the streets on both sides were filled with leaves and trash. They started cleaning up first thing the next morning, and it was spotless within a short time."
The ambassadors also handle the often-delicate task of working with the homeless, approaching them to let them know about programs that can help them get off the streets. In tough cases — like "aggressive panhandling or when somebody recently decided they were going to urinate in the middle of the street," Thomas recalled — the ambassadors contact the police.
Schudy has noticed a change already. "In just the last two weeks," he said, "I went from opening the store and seeing three or four homeless people on both sides of the street to seeing just one last weekend."
The Westwood farmers market now segues smoothly into Westwood Live, which last month offered a photo booth for playful poses.
A more robust Westwood farmers market on Broxton Avenue is also drawing notice. Recently, BID worked with the market to reschedule it from Wednesdays to Thursdays and to extend its hours, which now run from noon to 6 p.m.
Every third Thursday of the month, the market syncs up with Westwood Live, also on Broxton. Spearheaded last spring by the Westwood Community Council, the event incorporates retailer discounts and giveaways with fun activities. November’s event, for instance, featured live music, a photo booth, movies, art and sumo wrestling. The next Westwood Live is scheduled for Jan. 19 at 6 p.m.
"We felt it was important to create synergy between these events," said Thomas.
"Last month I went to the farmers market to pick up some vegetables, then stayed for Westwood Live and had dinner," Wong said. "It was a blast."
Next on BID’s agenda is "the always-popular topic of parking," Thomas said, tongue-in-cheek — specifically the apparent lack of parking.
But the problem is one of perception more than reality, said Schudy, a member of BID's parking advisory committee and participant in all three neighborhood organizations. A representative from UCLA also sits on the parking committee. "Westwood’s parking situation is actually not as severe as other shopping areas," Schudy said, like West Hollywood. "But people think it’s really horrible."
BID is hiring a consultant to assess the area’s existing inventory. "The biggest challenge is that parking isn’t centralized," Thomas said."There’s the Broxton public lot that people know about, but there are also additional surface lots that people don’t know about — or even if they do, they don’t trust them." Added Schudy: "Anything we can do to counter these perceptions — even just marking all the lots with a big ‘P’ — will help."
The organization’s new website will probably identify parking areas and maybe even include an app to guide visitors to an available spot. To be developed after completion of a branding study now under way, "the website will be the front door for our community," said Thomas, "the go-to site to see everything we offer, as well as any cool events or promotions going on."
"Everything that’s happening benefits UCLA and the entire community," said Wong. "Making Westwood a cleaner, safer place makes people more likely to want to go out for a meal, see a movie or go shopping. It makes Westwood a place where you want to be."
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