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Westwood, for rent: The Village’s past and present

The Holmby Hall clock tower building is a symbol of Westwood Village – and a reminder of the bygone glory days of the business district. (Daily Bruin file photo)
The Holmby Hall clock tower building is a symbol of Westwood Village – and a reminder of the bygone glory days of the business district. (Daily Bruin file photo)

Editor’s note: This is the first in a weekly series about the rise, decline and future of Westwood Village, a historic Los Angeles business district located near some of the wealthiest areas of the city: Bel Air, Brentwood and Beverly Hills. City editor Roberto Luna Jr. looks into the reasons for Westwood’s oft-discussed decline and what, if anything, could be done to change things.

Whenever I walk down Westwood Boulevard underneath the broken clock tower past the Janss Investment Company building, I think about what I missed.

In its glory days, Westwood Village had crowded sidewalks, a vibrant nightlife and more than 20 movie screens. For a UCLA student, a Westwood resident or the casual visitor, this place had it all.

This was how Edwin and Harold Janss, the original developers of Westwood, envisioned Westwood Village when they premiered it in 1929. After luring the University of California Board of Regents to move its second campus here, they wanted to create a business district that would not only serve the new UCLA community, but also the residents they were bringing into the surrounding areas.

The Janss brothers brought a mix of businesses to the Village, which thrived until the late 1980s, according to the Los Angeles Times, to accommodate both students and residents. For that reason, they brought in chain stores as well as mom-and-pop shops. Among those stores were Bullock’s, Ralphs, Oakley’s Barber Shop and many more.

More notable were the Fox and Bruin theaters, which together became a hotspot for movie premieres. The large crowds they drew not only showed the theaters’ popularity, but also how people were willing to come to Westwood Village.

That cannot be said today.

Westwood Village’s age shows in the dust that has gathered on its vacant store fronts, its lack of entertainment spots and occasional passersby, most of which are all but forced to dine or shop in the Village because of their status as students or employees and have no where else to go.

Students, the Village’s primary customers, find themselves venturing into Westwood because they need to, not because they want to. They have Target or Ralphs for groceries and supplies, but they will often ask themselves where else in Los Angeles they will go for the day.

In a city that has the Grove and a bustling Hollywood district, the Village needs to stand out if it wants to thrive. The rest of Los Angeles being Westwood’s biggest competitor forces any revitalization efforts to be noteworthy, something that doesn’t seem to get done too often.

Luckily, several businesses’ expansion to Westwood means there are signs of life left. From Urban Outfitter’s daring expansion last year to Francesca’s and Paper Source’s arrival this fall, stores appear willing to venture in Westwood again. That and projects such as Gayley and Lindbrook and Plaza La Reina shows that development in Westwood is on the rise.

Westwood Village needs to be revitalized to fit the needs and wants of UCLA students and to give a unique experience for the casual shopper. But above all, given its historic significance in Los Angeles culture, it deserves to thrive.

If we take a close look at past models, it can help invent a new formula to solve the problem. We will never see the Westwood of the past again. But that may be a good thing. The changing market and people’s interests requires any business district, not just Westwood, to adapt.

Development will not revive Westwood Village unless there is a central vision. This should be left at the hands of the business improvement district and landlords in charge of signing leases and residents themselves. However, too much of an involvement in development by residents can stunt growth.

After endlessly waxing nostalgic about Westwood Village, I have thoughts about all that’s to come.

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