Although the name UCLA is recognized around the world, the university is intrinsically linked with one place: Westwood Village. Developed in 1929 by the Janss Investment Company, which sold the state the land on which to build the campus at a bargain price, the neighborhood holds a fond place in Bruin memories.
The village isn’t what it once was. Since its heyday in the 1980s, it has seen customers and tenants leave for competing shopping districts and Bruins turn to on-campus resources. Some blocks have sat ghostly empty for decades. But the UCLA connection still inspires hope for renewal.
A Recipe for Revival
In May, Alfred Coffee opened its 10th Los Angeles cafe, bringing its craft beverages, striking interior design and Instagram appeal to Westwood Village. An immediate success, Alfred is located at the northeast corner of Westwood Boulevard and Lindbrook Drive. The iconic building previously housed a Ralphs supermarket, the Bratskellar restaurant, La Salsa and Peet’s Coffee.
Since the opening, students preparing for exams and coffee lovers eager to escape the house amid lifted COVID restrictions have poured into Alfred. “So far, this location has outpaced our projections — it’s one of our top-grossing. And we are very bullish on the neighborhood,” says founder Josh Zad M.B.A. ’06.
An L.A. native, Zad has had his eye on the village since opening the first Alfred on Melrose Place in 2013. “I grew up spending my weekends at the legendary movie theaters, shopping for CDs, hanging out at the local arcades and restaurants,” he recalls. But Westwood had to wait until trendier locations, including Koreatown, Silver Lake and Abbot Kinney, got their espresso shots. “I hope this is the beginning of a Westwood revival!” commented one of Alfred’s 146,000 Instagram followers.
Changes are afoot that could maybe — just maybe — enable the village to evolve into a lively, college-friendly, 21st-century neighborhood. They range from the pandemic-induced loosening of city restrictions on outdoor dining to the Metro Purple Line stop coming to the intersection of Westwood and Wilshire boulevards. The Hammer Museum at UCLA is remodeling to become more inviting. UCLA is transforming the historic Crest Westwood Theatre south of Wilshire into the Nimoy Theater for live performances. And the Summer Olympic and Paralympic Games are coming in 2028.
Ghosts of Westwood Past
Surrounded by a marketer’s dream of youth and wealth, Westwood Village should be a vibrant commercial center, bustling with places to eat, drink, play and shop. Alumni from the 1980s remember the area thronging with people who crowded restaurants and lined up around the block for movies.
Now empty storefronts serve as sad reminders of better times. Amplified by the pandemic, the retail vacancy rate in Westwood Village stands at 32%, according to the Westwood Village Improvement Association, a business improvement district (BID) that was established in 2011. As COVID accelerated the trend toward online shopping, Westwood Boulevard alone lost Sur La Table, Paper Source, Francesca’s and AT&T. Even Victoria’s Secret, which for years had been operating rent-free, closed down.
“When you have a business like Victoria’s Secret that just decides it’s not even worth it to keep the door open and pay the labor and the insurance on the space? Wow,” says Andrew Thomas, executive director of the Westwood Village Improvement Association. Thomas charts the area’s decline in the letters he’s written to city officials, begging for regulatory relief. “I have one letter that says our vacancy rate is 17%. And it’s, ‘Oh, my gosh, the sky is falling,’” he says. “And the next one says, it’s 22%. ‘Oh, my gosh, the sky is falling.’ And then the next one is 32% — ‘Please help us.’”
Changes are afoot that could enable the village to evolve into a lively, college-friendly, 21st-century neighborhood.
More Bruin Residents
Nothing would give the village a bigger boost than having more 24-hour residents. “We need people living in Westwood Village,” Thomas says. “We need that captive audience, that customer base that our businesses can rely on and really build around.” Less restricted by local regulations than private developers are, UCLA is adding more than 5,000 on-campus residential spots, including nearly 3,500 right next to the village. The student apartments will have kitchens but not dining halls, making the village a draw for residents in search of sustenance.
The university is also building 80 to 100 new faculty apartments adjacent to the village. “Ultimately, we would like to see more mixed-use development in the village itself, where you have commercial activity on the ground floor and residential on the upper floors,” says Michael Beck, UCLA’s administrative vice chancellor and former city manager of Pasadena, whose Old Town provides a model for what Westwood Village could become.
Like Old Town Pasadena, the village has charming architecture and the potential to become the kind of outdoor-oriented, pedestrian-friendly commercial environment that lifestyle centers like The Grove try to create from scratch. “You don’t have to manufacture it, because it already exists,” says Beck. “You just need to figure out how to embrace it right and still get more development.”
After years of making the campus increasingly self-sufficient, the university is working to connect students with the village. Since 2017, UCLA Residential Life and the BID have hosted an annual block party on Broxton Avenue for new students and the local community. As the post-pandemic future takes shape, UCLA envisions an even closer connection between students and the village, with events and activities that serve as a magnet to draw people into the neighborhood. “It’s all about having a presence in Westwood that connects back to UCLA,” says Mary Osako ’96, UCLA vice chancellor for strategic communications. The invisible curtain across Le Conte Avenue is lifting.
Student-Friendly vs. High-End
With a long-established neighborhood of homeowners living adjacent to the village, the retail and development preferences of these residents are, understandably, often very different from what might appeal to UCLA students and their budgets. Tim Kawahara ’91, executive director of the UCLA Ziman Center for Real Estate, said local residents have effectively organized over time to advocate for the village they want to see.
Meanwhile, students — who often leave Westwood after completing their degrees — have not been able to organize in the same way. That is, until now.
In recent years, a student-led campaign helped create a separate North Westwood Neighborhood Council, complete with its own officially recognized representatives for an area that includes the village, the university and Persian Square, south of Wilshire. Elected by local stakeholders, L.A.’s neighborhood councils are advisory, not legislative. But they have “a soft kind of power,” says Andrew Lewis ’10, who attended UCLA and serves as vice president of the North Westwood council. City officials listen to them. High on the council’s wish list are zoning revisions that would loosen the restrictions that all but mandate those empty storefronts.
As online retailers lure shoppers away from brick-and-mortar, other commercial districts, such as Westfield Century City and Sawtelle Boulevard, can shift their tenant mix toward dining, entertainment, exercise studios and medical services — selling experiences rather than stuff. Westwood Village can’t. It’s governed by a highly prescriptive “specific plan” that was adopted in 1989 to tilt the village away from movie theaters and affordable restaurants in favor of the high-end stores and ample free parking favored by homeowners. It worked for a little while in the 1990s, but then the world changed, and Westwood Village couldn’t adapt.
Working Around Restrictions
Among the plan’s rules are strict limits on fast-food restaurants, defined as anything without waiters taking customer orders. (Upscale, “fast casual” restaurants like Tender Greens — which had many regulatory burdens to overcome before opening in the village — hadn’t been invented in 1989.) Any building that switches from store to restaurant, or vice versa, must add ample on-site parking, an impossible demand for the historic structures that give the neighborhood its charm. To build on an empty parking lot, you have to replace at least half the lost spaces — on top of whatever the city requires for the new use.
The specific plan explains why some of the city’s most theoretically valuable real estate remains vacant asphalt, and why the commercial district next to a huge university is bereft of live music and short on bars and moderately priced places to eat.
“There is tension between what UCLA students want and need versus what the folks who have lived in the area for a few generations want,” says Lewis. With approximately half of undergraduates on financial aid, students don’t have the dining budgets of the Holmby Hills homeowners whose preferences are reflected in the specific plan.
But UCLA students are clever. In his days as an undergraduate serving on the Associated Students UCLA (ASUCLA) board, Lewis saw the workarounds. If the village wouldn’t allow restaurants like Rubio’s, Blaze Pizza or Panda Express, ASUCLA would offer them an alternative: “Let’s just bring that to Ackerman [Union]. And that’s literally what we would do.” More reasons not to leave campus.
The specific plan’s backers hoped to restore the Westwood Village that long-time residents remembered from the 1950s through the 1970s, before the movie theaters made it an entertainment magnet. “The city’s response was to regulate and ration the kinds of entertainment uses that had overwhelmed the village,” says Zev Yaroslavsky ’71, M.A. ’72, who represented the area on the city council when the plan was adopted and now serves as director of the Los Angeles Initiative at the Luskin School of Public Affairs.
“Obviously, that didn’t work,” he says. “It retarded the expansion of entertainment units, but it didn’t create — because the city can’t create — the kind of environment that was there before.” Instead of reanimating the past, the plan strangled the future.
Change on the Horizon?
More than three decades and one pandemic later, city officials are getting the message. In May, Paul Koretz ’79, who holds the city council seat that represents Westwood Village and UCLA, endorsed amending the specific plan to revise its restaurant definitions, allow buildings to change uses without triggering new parking requirements, apply only citywide parking requirements to new construction and exempt signs from extra design review if they meet city requirements. In a letter to the city on behalf of the university, Beck argued for the changes “to support a more vibrant and successful village.”
Making sure village signs enhance the atmosphere sounds like a wise idea — shopping malls owned by a single landlord have sign rules, after all — but the process can be arbitrary and expensive. In his letter, Beck notes that “the process for signage approvals would benefit from being less cumbersome and more predictable.” Alfred Coffee opened its Westwood Village shop in May, but two months later, it was still using temporary banners rather than its signature awnings and signs, because permanent signs hadn’t yet been approved.
“It costs more to go through the process to put up a sign than it does to actually build the sign and have it installed,” says Thomas. And that’s assuming everything goes well. Sign review jeopardized plans to fill one of the village’s longest-empty spaces.
Surrounded by a marketer’s dream of youth and wealth, Westwood Village should be a vibrant commercial center.
Sender One, a Santa Ana–based chain co-founded by Alice Kao ’01, wants to convert the former Festival Theater into the company’s fourth rock-climbing and yoga center. Around the corner from Alfred, the place has been empty since 2009, its slanting floor making it a tough sell for most uses. But Kao thought the high ceilings were perfect. She also remembered going to movies there and loved the idea of restoring some Westwood history. “It just brought back a lot of these happy memories for me,” she says. Sender One signed its lease, prepared its initial drawings and got ready for the city’s design review. Then COVID hit, slowing everything down.
Further complicating the situation, a concerned community member objected to plans to use the old theater marquee as a sign. The building started as a Ralphs supermarket, which closed in 1974, so its movie theater identity wasn’t original. Although Sender One’s proposed sign otherwise met city requirements, the design review board ruled that the marquee had to go. Sender One or its landlord would be required to remove it — at a cost of more than $300,000.
“I personally like the marquee,” says Kao. “I think it’s beautiful.” But taste wasn’t really the issue. Money was. The six-figure price tag for taking down the sign was a deal breaker. “I’m not a huge real estate developer with millions of dollars to spend on this project,” she says. Her landlord, Topa Properties, appealed to Koretz, and the city’s planning department eventually overturned the design ruling and approved the signs. Kao hopes to open Sender One in Westwood Village by the beginning of school in fall 2022.
Ironically, it is Yaroslavsky, a sponsor of the specific plan while a city council member, who best articulates why it failed. “Nothing goes back to what it was,” he says. “It’s all about what it can become.” With a little luck, the village’s current darkness could herald a new dawn.
Read more from UCLA Magazine’s October 2021 issue.