November 10, 2011 - From the November, 2011 issue

Westwood Village Plan Balances Students, Visitors, Businesses, and Public Space

UCLA CityLAB and the Hammer Museum hosted a public symposium to discuss the urban design plans for Westwood Village. TPR shares excerpted remarks by Dana Cuff, UCLA CityLAB, Nick Patsaouras, former Metro boardmember, Mark Robbins, Dean, Syracuse University School of Architecture, Chris Hawthorne, Architecture critic, LA Times, Aaron Betsky,  Director of the Cincinnati Museum of Art, and architects Neil Dinari, Roger Sherman, and Edwin Chan.


Nick Patsaouras

"There is value to big ideas, but they must be big ideas that can occur now and not 50 years from now." -Nick Patsaouras

Dana Cuff (Moderator): We’ve been presented with significant ideas today. Without clear mechanisms and means by which those kinds of projects can happen in this economic time, I’m wondering whether you think there is value in big ideas? 

Nick Patsaouras: There is value to big ideas, but they must be big ideas that can occur now and not 50 years from now. I’m a little disconcerted right now. The catalysts for developing the Westwood Village are the MTA, UCLA, and property owners. I became aware today that the big partners, MTA and UCLA, have not talked. We are going to have a tower, a 35-story tower, on Gayley and Wilshire. The MTA and UCLA should have formed a partnership five years ago to create a master plan of the block from Wilshire north to Gayley and Westwood. I am kind of angry because when you look at MOS-1 of the subway you’ll see an absolute disaster! Go into Pershing Square Station, and what you have is a stairway exit facing a 1928 brick building rather than the Biltmore. We would have had the same disaster at Hollywood and Vine: a stairway exiting south ignoring the Pantages. But some of us at the MTA got smart and said, “Time out, bureaucrats! Time out, big consultants! We are going to do a master plan for every station.” So what you have at Hollywood and Vine is a very successful project. 

Traffic means parking, and vice versa. Wilshire cannot afford any more parking. The big idea is for MTA and UCLA to get a master planner. As for this 35-story tower, where are these people going to come from? Where are they going to park? What will happen is worse than what happened at Hollywood and Highland: a little stairway down to this big development. When I said, “Let’s celebrate transportation. We are spending billions of dollars. Why have just a tiny station?” You know what the answer was to why we couldn’t have a great station? It was losing thousands of square feet of rental. 

Dana Cuff (Moderator): I think what you’re talking about is exactly why we took on this project. Mark, your thoughts?

Mark Robbins: First of all I’d like to say that I have the luxury of being from another coast, and sometimes it’s helpful to be dropped in from the outside to see the assets a place has that may not be apparent to locals. Rather than think about the notion of “bigness” in terms of master plans, this work really has to do with attitudes. It has to do with looking at assets. In some ways, Neil is able to look at the assets that Wilshire provides in terms of scale and access. The village provides another asset in terms of the potential conflation of the cultural facilities of UCLA in a walkable area. 

Dana Cuff (Moderator): Chris, I see you nodding with this. The idea of the master plan in some ways is one that is hard to muster here in Los Angeles. I think that those projects that acknowledge that and look for another way into thinking about big ideas are the ones that could have an impact in Los Angeles.

Chris Hawthorne: I think that whether we like it or not, and however we feel about big ideas, the subway is the big idea. The fact that it will be here is going to change the way we think about urbanism and mobility all over the city. I applaud the architects for adding some other big ideas into the fabric, but I think the subway alone is enough to get the conversation started. 

I really hope that there are some people from Metro here because I do think that for 10 or 15 years Metro with its Measure R war chest promises to be the single biggest investment entity, not just for transportation but also for urbanism and even for architecture. It’s worth remembering that we think of the single-family house (or maybe the freeway or boulevard) as the building block of our particular kind of urbanism in Los Angeles. But arguably it’s the modern community plan exactly the size of Westwood Village that had the greater impact. A lot of those communities planned in the ‘20s that are of a size and piece of the city that can really be frustrating to reinvent. But they also provide the real opportunities for re-imagining the future of the city. The question of how to reinvent those communities and how to stitch them together for 21st century Los Angeles, which now has a comprehensive transportation system for the first time, is in many ways the central question of this city’s future. 

Aaron Betsky: I think that the question really is: what does Westwood want to be and how can it be what it wants to be? 

It is UCLA-dependent. The thing that will provide the interface between UCLA—an enclosed academic village by nature—and its surroundings is student-oriented retail at the ‘low end’ and cultural exposition—visual arts or performing arts—on the so-called ‘high end’. You have to realize that the actual presence of 70,000 UCLA people in this area is the engine. What worried me a little bit in seeing these schemes, which are very thoughtful and well presented, was that they didn’t recognize the kind of sleazy transients that any university retail area will have. You deal with a highly transient population whose expenditure patterns are not oriented to high-ticket items and who want this to be a lively place, to put it politely. That can be fine. 

The question is how do you tame that kind of sleazy transience and make it your own? I wonder whether you really need a big-scale gesture for that. It seems to me that Westwood should move up into campus. There were plans back when I lived here for intense retail development up Westwood Gateway through the campus. If I could do anything it would be to let Wilshire be whatever it wants to be, and let Westwood and UCLA merge to become one place. 

Dana Cuff (Moderator): Roger and Edwin, do you have a response? You were working with the kind of UCLA interchange with the village. 

Roger Sherman: We were addressing, Aaron, not the sleaziness part but certainly the notion of the incursion through a process of reverse osmosis. We felt that UCLA has the opportunity to be a white knight or a dark knight, and we felt that the actual reconstruction of Westwood Village was largely going to fall on UCLA’s shoulders. It’s become apparent after several decades of effort that the usual, simple formulas of better streetscapes weren’t going to work. So when I say reverse osmosis I mean that it falls on UCLA to be the one to sponsor projects, meaning building parking and so on. But in doing that there is the possibility that Westwood will soak itself into the structures that UCLA is building through shared parking, retail, and other functions that allow not for mix of uses but for mix of occupants. 

Aaron Betsky: That is important because I am very skeptical of this whole notion that putting this subway station in is going to be this Deus ex machina. We have seen Mexico City develop a large-scale subway that works very well but is very class-based. You’re seeing it now develop in Shanghai and other big cities. The subway is going to be for the lower economic class, and I wonder if it is really going to have that kind of a transformative impact. Similarly, cultural institutions, or UCLA coming down, will be for an upper economic stratus. 

Chris Hawthorne: I really disagree with that. I think there are people from all economic classes who are desperate for this subway to happen and will be using it as soon as it opens. I would agree with the first half of your comment, which is that we should be careful of thinking of it as a magic bullet. But I think that the class-based part of the argument I take issue with. 

Nick Patsaouras: I also agree that all professional and socioeconomic levels ride the trains. You’re partly right about the buses, but the subway, the trains, and of course Metrolink have had tremendous success attracting professionals. You said the subway is the magic bullet. But the magic bullet has to be planned now. 

Dana, you mentioned architecture and planning. The days of architecture when we dropped in a building without concern for the urban metrics are gone. The buildings now have to work in relation to their surroundings. If I may, I think most of the people want the village to come to life today. We don’t want to wait until 2025, when a lot of people are going to take the subway. There can be incremental interventions. Westwood is a village, but for the visitor it is an urban chaos. There are a lot of people walking, but you don’t have this kind of serene feeling.

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Mark Robbins: I’m not sure that serenity is part of what we’re looking for in an urban center. Nor does it need to be sleazy. I think there is something about the kind of cross programming that naturally happens in cities that make things vibrant. That goes back to part of your point, Nick, which is the ability to re-program pre-existing fabric with multiple kinds of uses that appeal to students, recent graduates, and to people who come for the destination. So some of that is programming: it’s about destination restaurants; it’s cultural institutions; it’s about pop-up stores. There are multiple ways that have been used in cities across the country and across the world to activate streets. It’s not always a matter of huge master-planning gestures, nor is it about the cash. We see this, for instance, in Medellin where there is very little money, but there is a kind of curatorial sensibility about the way the city works as a whole. 

Chris Hawthorne: These points raise devil’s advocate questions, though. Having been to Medellin and having written about it I sometimes despair that we will never have that level of political leadership on the strategic thinking on curating the city that you’re talking about. I also think there are plenty of reasons to be pessimistic about the MTA’s role and its relationship to architecture and planning. So, architects: it’s great to have big ideas at the beginning and to make some provocative statements about large-scale interventions. On the other hand, 2025 is really not that far away. At what strategic place do you grapple with the absence of political leadership if nothing changes in the next decade?

Neil Dinari: Big things happen when big people are involved. Developers take huge amounts of risk, but they also have control. Chris, I think you’re talking about the extent to which the MTA can place a project beyond simply trying make this kind of catalyst. I’m naively optimistic about the subway. I wouldn’t be so interested in this if I thought it was just a college town or that it was only going to be a place where towers are filled with businessman who drive their cars; come in; leave at six o’clock; the buildings becomes a empty hulks; and meanwhile a marauding world of college students appear below. 

Nick Patsaouras: The MTA has the authority to tell people how this is going to be planned. It’s as simple as that. UCLA can come to the table or can decline to do so. But the MTA is using our money, billions of dollars, to build a subway. I’ve maintained since the early 1990s that transportation is a catalyst to remake this city and to remake the village. So the MTA is now doing what I did when I was there for MOS-2. They are creating a master plan with sections. Don’t just design, for convenience, economics or other reasons, a station with only just a stairway. 

Aaron Betsky: I’m really happy that L.A. is finally building the subway. Yes, it’s having an incredible impact in places like Hollywood, but it is having an impact by creating destination nodes. If Westwood wants to be another destination node like Hollywood or like Third Street Promenade or like South Coast Plaza, then yes, you can have these kinds of big objects. 

Everyone is so upset that I used the words ‘sleazy’ and ‘transient’, but come on! That’s what you’ve got. If Westwood wants to be its own thing, it’s going to have to figure out how it can use what it is, which is a student-based community. Given its neighbors, given the constraints of everything around it, and given the competition from every other community out here that wants to develop and to be bigger and better, that’s what it’s going to have to be. You have to recognize that it’s not going to be a gleaming, shining place. It’s going to have a particular character, and that’s great. Work with it, and build on that. 

Mark Robbins: But Aaron, maybe a better or anther way of characterizing this is ‘vitality’ rather than ‘sleaziness’. I think of New Haven, where you spent some time; I never think of New Haven as particularly sleazy, actually.

Aaron Betsky: But it is!

Mark Robbins: You must have known other parts of town and had a more fun undergraduate experience than I. But I think about Penn; I think about Ohio State; I think about Georgia Tech; I think about what we’ve done at Syracuse. It’s not dissimilar to living in Washington, D.C. Everyone bemoans the cultural and arts scene in D.C. because it is considered so transient, and people are reluctant to build institutions there because they think that every four years the city will hold a whole new cast of characters: somebody wants to show lots of Manets and the other one wants to show Kiki Smith. But then people do very little because they fear that transience. But there is a natural flow and flux, which is urban.

Chris Hawthorne: That’s right, and I think Aaron is right to talk about nodes. This still will be a city of nodes even after the train gets here. That won’t change. But if it is a competition among those various nodes, Westwood in some ways is very well positioned. 

Dana Cuff (Moderator): I think that Nick is right in saying that the promise of transit looms larger than the reality in many cities where we see transit-oriented development trying to take transformative hold. If you don’t have the larger vision at what increment do you implement next? We have two very significant projects coming up. One would be Lot 36 and the other, the subway. How do we know what to do with those if we don’t know where we might want the village to head?

Roger Sherman: As we worked on this we began to feel as though the act of urban renewal and revitalizing the village was not unlike ecological restoration where you have to have a lower canopy, a middle canopy, and an upper canopy. The actual success is predicated not on what you want it to look like but rather on how you get from today to there. We were asked in several of the workshops, “when have you done enough?” Part of this was about wary community residents, but it was also a very insinuating question. Do you need the towers? Do you need the residences? We actually thought deeply about that, and we thought that an overt dependency on the players could make things fall apart. It was built upon a house of cards. We felt particularly that if all UCLA did was bring those cultural institutions down you would achieve a tipping point. But we’re not talking about Bilbao. 

I actually believe in a way that the sleaziness that Aaron was talking about would make that better than Yerba Buena. It won’t be a sanitized cultural district. It would actually be something whose contamination by the students and by the park-and-ride commuters will actually lend to it a kind of grittiness that will give it the qualities Neil was referring to as a ‘city’ and not merely as a place.

Edwin Chan: In our process we’ve asked ourselves two questions. Number one: who are the people coming to Westwood? We agonize about that a lot. I think that Aaron’s student populations are a part of this equation as much as the people who work in the office towers. The real question remains (and it’s a little bit of a self-serving kind of thing): what would it take for me to move to Westwood Village? We need to think about what could bring other people to Westwood that would broaden the demographics, and this is near the heart of our schemes. I actually look forward to the day when I can take the subway and hit all three museums—the Hammer, LACMA, and MOCA—all in one afternoon. 

Nick Patsaouras: The property owners in the village would like to know how they are going to lease their space. There are a lot of empty spaces around. It’s obvious that the UCLA students are not supporting the local businesses. The office workers within walking distance weren’t shopping in any of those places that have closed. How do we make a destination work? How do we help these property owners today before all these subway riders arrive in 2025? 

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© 2017 The Planning Report | David Abel, Publisher, ABL, Inc.