The first article I ever wrote for CP&DR concerned the generationally decrepit state of Los Angeles' Westwood Village (see CP&DR Vol. 23, No. 6 June 2008). In the three years that have passed since then--despite my blistering expose (of one of the city's most open secrets)--it's only gotten worse. Storefronts are vacant. Bars are sad. Only the Trader Joe's seems to be making any money, and that's because, well, it's Trader Joe's. I saw Moneyball the other night at the cavernous, turreted Village Theater with maybe 20 other people in its 1,000 seats.
For the uninitiated, Westwood is no inner-city slum. It's next door to UCLA and, beyond that, Bel Air. Yes, that Bel Air. Of the Fresh Prince, gated estates, and obscene amounts of money fame.
But, for the most part, the city has treated Westwood Village about as well as it has treated its homeless population: with more resignation than hope. It remains grungy and avoided even though it has, arguably, the best, most pedestrian-friendly streetscape in the entire city. No wonder Angelenos think it's cursed.
This Monday UCLA's cityLAB, in conjuction with the Hammer Museum and Westside Urban Forum (disclosure: I am a former board member), will try to exorcise a few demons with "Curse and Vision: the Future of Westwood Village," a charette/competition to imagine what the Village could be a generation hence. CityLab enlisted two local architecture firms, Neil M. Denari Architects and Roger Sherman and Associates, to imagine what Westwood could be if hair salons, CVS pharmacies, and the Aahs! novelty shop were kicked out and replaced by something that reflects the district's geographic and cultural centrality in West Los Angeles.
Dana Cuff, director of cityLAB, instructed the firms to forget about the gang shootings, economic stagnation, and UCLA football defeats and focus on the streets and the area's inherent virtues.
Last week I attended a preview event at which the two teams have presented concepts that, on face, seem outrageously bold--and breathlessly exciting.
Neil Denari and his team approach their vision by asking what in the blazes an "urban village" even is. I don't think anyone quite knows, though it's an appealing notion to think that it's something more self-contained, defined, and dynamic than a neighborhood but not merely part of the cityscape. Westwood and Noe Valley are probably villages; Koreatown and the Tenderloin are not.
Denari envisions the Village as a high-density district of mid-rise towers that would be almost off-limits to automobiles but served generously by Metro's planned subway extension, with a station in the heart of the Village. Denari's paln would partially bury Wilshire Boulevard—an eight-lane torrent that makes approaching the Village on foot agonizing experience—and deck it over with a pedestrian plaza, the likes of which are rare in Los Angeles. Skinny towers would pop up like giraffes throughout the Village's irregular streetscape. This vision, which would surely increase the Village's jobs and residential density, acknowledges the Village's geographic centrality on the Westside. It is in the middle of everything and therefore should serve as many people as possible.
Roger Sherman & Associates focused less on the physical form of the Village than on its potential cultural significance. The paradox of the Village is that, despite its vacancies, it has two of the remaining great single-screen movie theaters, plus a museum, a second-their live theater, and all the museums and performance spaces of UCLA. But it's hard to take in Shakespeare or contemplate Van Gogh when you have to wash them down with Subway and hookah.
Sherman's team therefore proposed an ingenious stroke of urban acupuncture: demolish the public parking structure in the middle of the Village and replace it with a public plaza dedicated to the arts. Sherman's model includes all sorts of creative flourishes, such as video art projected on exterior walls and enormous public sculptures. He proposes that the institutions get involved: specifically that UCLA relocate at least one of its theaters to the village so that it can do what theater does best: enhance public life. Like Denari, Sherman envisions the addition of tufa-tower type residential buildings with lofts, studios, and rooftop patios where artists and other creative-types can live.
Neither of these visions has anything to do with the way that planning takes place today—they are more like architecture school projects that co-opt a place over which they have no dominion over anything except, surely, the passions of neighbors who are going to blanche at the sight of the teams' renderings. And both present such astoundingly novel interpretations of the Village that it's impossible to imagine that they would ever amass political support or that they would survive once enshrined in the bureaucracy of a zoning code. Then again, when most of West Los Angeles was occupied by nothing but scrub brush, the original Westwood Village was itself a radical notion. Both, therefore, rely on the audacity of hope: that after 20 years of malaise stakeholders can begin to believe that Westwood is not cursed.
The larger lesson for all California cities is that we will someday get out of this recession and will someday get back to making, and realizing, big plans. By the time that happens, traffic will be thicker and Californians will be more numerous—and they might even want great places in which to live, work, and take a stroll. Westwood has always had great bones, with its nearly Medieval tangle of streets. Maybe some day someone will exhume them, break the curse, and create life anew.
Curse and Vision: The Future of Westwood Village
Public Symposium by UCLA's cityLAB
When: Monday, October 10, 2011, 4:00-6:00 PM
Where: Hammer Museum, Billy Wilder Theater / 10899 Wilshire Boulevard, Los Angeles