November 30, 1993 - From the November, 1993 issue

Universal’s CityWalk: Redefining Urban Design

By Laureen Lazarovici.

What exactly is Universal's CityWalk? Is it a shopping mall, a public space, “the downtown L.A. never had" (as MCA's promotional video claims) - or some hybrid of the three? That was the question asked at the October 14 meeting of the Urban Design Advisory Coalition (UDAC) at Universal CityWalk. 

“Four years ago, it was hard to describe what CityWalk was going to be," said MCA Vice President Jim Nelson. “We wanted to create a critical mass where the local population wanted to come on a regular basis." Indeed, MCA studies show that 61 percent of the crowd is locals. "That was the biggest surprise to tenants," Nelson said. “We have created a popular public space," he asserted, "something that usually takes a long time to build up." With its colorful, over-the­top storefronts, interactive fountains and bustling pedestrian environment, Nelson argued, CityWalk is distinct from the average suburban shopping mall. ''This is an entertaining public space," he said. CityWalk has refined the notion of retail as entertainment (Melrose Avenue and the Third Street Promenade are also in this category), not only by linking shops with nearby movie theaters, but by creating an atmosphere where the stores themselves are amusing, fun to look at and shop in.

As to the argument that CityWalk can be over stimulating, Nelson countered that, "It's the same kind of stimulation I remember as a kid walking down Washington Street in Boston. We've all had that kind of childhood experience. Is it over stimulating compared to what? Big Sur? Yes, it is. Ventura Boulevard had bright spots (like the Tower Records at Van Nuys Boulevard) that create excitement. It's a trade­mark of urban vitality." 

David Glover, architect with the Jerde Partnership, agreed that CityWalk’s unique features made it impossible to characterize it primarily as a shopping district. "CityWalk is the opposite of 'Main Street' It pumps everything up. No one critiques it as a mall. They critique it as a public space - whether we are one or not." 

But the question remains as to what lessons can be learned from Universal's apparently successful experiment. Michael Wester, architect and UDAC member, said that "The criticism leveled at CityWalk is because of a misunderstanding of the distinction between retail and urban design. CityWalk: is a well done retail machine - which uses good elements of urban design. You can't compare it to downtown L.A. or to a standard mall. The next step is to use it as a fulcrum for good urban design for the rest of the city, with more of a public context."

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Architect Brenda Levin agreed. "We should take the lessons learned from CityWalk: in terms of creating vibrancy and life and see what their applications are for urban environments such as Broadway and Wilshire Boulevard. How do we translate those lessons without doing it in an artificial way?"

While retail-as-entertainment is a useful concept to draw foot traffic to an area, shopping districts have to also serve real needs, she argued. "Broadway has a residential component, too. The retail is justified by this local market. The state government's commitment to the historic core means that the retail can be based on real needs, not artificial ones," Levin said. Older parts of the city can be revived by combining CityWalk's excitement with respect for historic architecture. "On CityWalk, they had to create an architecture," Levin said. "On Broadway, we already have significant architecture, but people don't even know it's there. We could have neon and creative signage at the pedestrian level (like CityWalk does) and then illuminate the beautiful architecture higher up. We've already got something that's larger than life."

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