Stores Retreat From Troubled Westwood

By DEBORAH BELGUM
Staff Reporter

Nearly a dozen retail stores have closed their doors in Westwood Village during the past six months and another half dozen are getting ready to leave the once-prosperous village by year's end.

Dissatisfied retailers bemoan the fact that the Village keeps limping along despite its proximity to affluent residents and one of the biggest university campuses in the state.

Some claim that Madison Marquette, a major leasing agent and property owner in the neighborhood, has failed to follow through on promises to bring in more desirable tenants. Others decry a lack of affordable parking.

Westwood also faces competition from newer shopping areas in town and from UCLA itself, which has opened up so much retail space that many students don't need to go elsewhere.

"UCLA has built its own shopping center on campus, which is a major draw to the students and taps millions and millions of dollars in business from Westwood," said Elliot Lewis, president of Paramount Securities, which owns property in Westwood Village.

Madison's director of leasing, Bob Baker, defended the firm's efforts to attract new tenants, saying there are signs of success. But he added that the village will never be the great hub it once was because of increased competition from Montana Avenue, Third Street Promenade and Old Pasadena.

Instead, Baker said that Madison which controls much of the retail space on Westwood Boulevard is working to make Westwood a retail center serving the local community. "This is not going to happen overnight, but we feel it is well on its way," Baker said.

Promises made

Some say the local focus represents a retreat.

Two years ago, Madison Marquette sent a letter to prospective tenants saying that it was trying to bring Westwood back to being "Southern California's original urban village."

A few big-name stores opened, including Victoria's Secret, Ann Taylor Loft and The Gap. The old Macy's department store is now occupied by an upscale Ralph's, a Home Expo, Long's Drugs and Best Buy.

But Madison Marquette also announced that Urban Outfitters, Banana Republic, American Rag, Lucky Brand jeans, Boot Camp shoes and Z Gallerie were looking at Westwood Village. They haven't arrived.

"I saw a lot of broken promises and false expectations," said Jeff Knight, founder and chief executive of Maui Beach Caf & #233;, a popular bar and restaurant that opened on Westwood Boulevard in 1997 and closed 3 & #733; years later after losing $2 million.

Knight, a former executive with Good Earth restaurants, said that while other university hubs are thriving, Westwood "is basically a shantytown."

Retail rents hover around $3 to $4 per square foot, well below the $9 at more upscale locations.

Baker contends that things are improving. He said the Ralphs supermarket, which opened late last year, has been a catalyst. "The quality of the tenants that are looking around is much better than it was," he said.

Corner Bakery is going to occupy the former Maui Beach Caf & #233; that's been vacant for one year, and a Chili's Restaurant has signed a lease to occupy the former Yesterday's Restaurant space, vacant for three years.

Executives at the Westwood Village Community Alliance, the local business improvement district, say the retail climate has improved. "The overall retail vacancy is 7 percent," said Bob Walsh, executive director of the alliance. "Five years ago the vacancy rate was close to 15 percent."

Ineffective mix?

While vacancies may be down, disaffected retailers complain that the new stores aren't bringing in customers. "I work in the village, but I don't shop in the village because there is nothing here," said Michael Kohan, owner of Michael K Jewelers on Broxton Avenue.

"I call Westwood Village a ghost town," said Rabin Soufer, owner of Robocat Shoes on Broxton Avenue. After losing $300,000 in five years, he is closing his store at the end of the year and concentrating on his Melrose Avenue location.

Others business owners complain that Madison Marquette is bringing the same big-box stores that can be found in any shopping center.

Christina Development Corp., which used to own most of the properties on Westwood Boulevard, sold a majority interest in them to Madison Marquette in 1998. Christina's president, Lawrence Taylor, said he has been disappointed with the leasing company's vision for the village.

The lack of affordable parking remains another major complaint, hampering Westwood's ability to attract non-students from outside the area.

Shop owners say validation costs them too much. Employees at Ann Taylor, which doesn't validate, suggest customers buy $5 worth of merchandise at the Rite-Aid drugstore to get validation.

Philip Gabriel, owner of a medical clothing store, is trying to resolve the parking problem. As chair of the BID's parking committee, he is launching an effort to reduce the price of validation to retailers. "There is parking, but it's not affordable," he said. "And we need better signage pointing out where it is."

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