Struggling to find itself after years of decay, Westwood Village is in the midst of a sea change that could see the area return to its roots: that of a neighborhood-type village serving the everyday needs of nearby residents, workers and students.

A flurry of activity, from leases to property acquisitions and unsolicited offers for buildings, is creating a buzz in a community that has undergone its share of false starts in recent years.

The change is best illustrated by plans to shut down the aging four-screen Mann Westwood Theatre and replace it with a Whole Foods market. The building on Gayley Avenue was a Safeway market in the 1960s. Nearby, Ralphs Grocery Co. this fall will open one of its Fresh Fare stores in the former Bullock's/Macy's building.

Besides Ralphs, three other tenants have been signed by landlord Madison Marquette Retail Services to fill the 210,000-square-foot building: EXPO Design Center, Best Buy and Longs Drugs. About a block away, an Ann Taylor Loft and Victoria's Secret will be opening on Westwood Boulevard.

Entrepreneur John Anderson (namesake of the UCLA Anderson School of Business) recently purchased the Shepard-Mitchell Building on Kinross Avenue for $5.2 million. And the Jurgensen's Building on Glendon Avenue, home of the Moustache Caf & #233;, was recently sold to commercial real estate broker Barry Beitler for $2.4 million.

"It looks very promising," said Sandy Brown, president of Holmby-Westwood Property Owners Association. "This is probably the most promising the village has looked in 10 years."

Tenants, landlords enthused

Michael Besancon, president of the Southern Pacific Region for Whole Foods Markets, said the company long has been looking for a Westwood location. When the space came available, Whole Foods jumped at the opportunity.

"There's been a revitalization of the village that makes it attractive," Besancon said. "It's a strong market and it's relatively underserved."

Such encouragement has been sounded before only to be slowly shot down as a combination of factors, ranging from competing shopping districts to homeowner objections over proposed developments, derailed any turnaround. Even today, the area remains a mish-mash of upscale eateries and low-rent nail salons. One well-received restaurant recently went out of business.

This time seems to be different, say developers and homeowners two groups that long have bickered over how the area could be resuscitated.

Douglas Brown, a partner at Regent Properties Inc., which signed Whole Foods, said the expiring theater leases represent the required kick in the pants.

Besides the building where Mann Westwood Theatre is located, Regent owns property on Broxton Avenue, which Mann operates as the Regent Theatre. Brown said the lease for that theater expires at the end of September and he hopes to fill the space, along with the vacant Bangkok Caf & #233; in the same building, with a different tenant.

To Brown, Mann just doesn't fit the village mix any longer. Before inking Whole Foods, he had received inquiries from other supermarkets, clothing retailers, restaurants and home furnishings dealers.

"The rents bypassed the volume a theater of that caliber was doing," he said. "The economic trend of the village has greatly improved. Their old, tired theater didn't keep up with the caliber of use we could put in there."

Among retailers either cutting deals or showing interest: Islands Restaurant, Longs Drugs and Santa Monica bookseller Hennessey & Ingalls Inc.

"As these movie theaters are going out, and these bookstores and other places are going in, you see the village returning to its roots," said Steve Sann, a real estate consultant who works among the landlords and tenants of the village.

Promenade comparisons

Mark Hennessey, owner of the art and architecture bookstore bearing his name, said he's interested in the village, but first he must dump his lease on Third Street Promenade. By the time his lease there expires at the end of 2004, "I will be out of here," he said.

Hennessey expects to pay around $3.50 per foot in Westwood, compared to monthly rates on Third Street of between $7 and $9 per foot. "I think Westwood is like what Santa Monica was 20 years ago, when it had lots of parking and low rents," Hennessey said.

Always a big presence, UCLA is driving some of the village's revitalization. The university is building a 75,000-square-foot facility on Kinross Avenue that will serve as temporary home to various departments as their existing buildings are brought up to seismic standards. Two blocks north on Gayley, UCLA is planning a 2,000-unit dormitory for graduate students.

Meanwhile, a significant renovation of the UCLA Hammer Museum recently got underway. It includes installation of a 288-seat movie theater for exhibition of the university's television and film archives.

Life beyond theaters

While community leaders are celebrating the apparent departure of the aging Mann theaters, it was movies that brought Monica Zeldes to the village. Zeldes is owner of Monica's on Broxton, a women's clothing boutique that opened in late 2000. Monica's is next door to the California Pizza Kitchen and a never-realized theater project.

While the theater was never built, CPK has been a traffic-generating neighbor and UCLA has provided an unexpected well of customers for Zeldes' pricey apparel. Almost half of Zeldes' business comes from college kids. "I'm getting the hostages without a car who have a credit card," she said.

Also helping out is the traffic through the village from Bel Air and Brentwood.

Before selecting the Village location, Zeldes considered setting up on Third Street Promenade in Santa Monica. But she found that the promenade's vaunted foot traffic was misleading. "On Third Street, people aren't walking with bags," she said.

Stan Berman, owner of Stan's Donuts at Broxton and Weyburn avenues, said there's an obvious momentum that's welcome after years of struggle.

"You know when you go skiing? You go down, like whoosh," he said. "The climb back up takes much longer."

Like others, however, Murray is cautious about how all the activity will play out. "A runaway train is not such a great thing. Hopefully, it grows in a balanced way," he said.

Sandy Brown said residents are making it clear to landlords what they want. "We're trying to put a hold on the nightlife and trying to up the daylife," she said.

She credited Madison Marquette, which is leasing the Bullock's/Macy's building, with leading the charge.

"We always felt that once we got the Macy's building done we would be a catalyst," said Bob Baker, vice president and director of leasing for the western region at Madison Marquette.noting that the phones have been ringing since the announcement that the Macy's building had filled up.

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