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12.17.2008
Protest: Sam Hall Kaplan
Palazzo casts a pall on Westwood Village
Courtesy Palazzo Westwood Village

After two decades of contentious community debate and fierce parochial politics, a major mixed-use development, Palazzo, has opened its doors in Westwood Village. Let the debates continue, for if nothing else, the project points to a disturbing drift in the design world, where heralded mixed-use projects do not necessarily translate into accessible urbanity as promised, but rather into economically isolating banality—at least in this less than inspiring instance.

Woe to Westwood, now promoting as its new heart the Palazzo’s 350 luxury apartments, an array of gilt-edge amenities, a cavernous 1,252-space garage, and 50,000 square feet of mostly high-end retail and restaurants. Shoe-horned onto the four-plus acre site and shrouded in a nauseating canary yellow, the heavily hyped development has all the charm of an extended-stay mid-city hotel residence. It is more citadel than community.

A Casden Properties conceit, it was designed with an experienced if predictable hand by the venerable firm of Van Tilburg Banvard & Soderburgh in the all-too-familiar Spanish colonial style that has carpeted swaths of sprawling Southern California over the last quarter century.

To be sure, the apartments seem to work, deftly maximizing light and air in limited interiors in no fewer than 17 different floor plans. The now-standard gourmet kitchens replete with granite countertops and spacious closets are attractive. But the attempt to clad the exterior in an Andalusian mode of bygone Westwood is more boorish than Moorish. The detailing that distinguishes the style is just not there, no doubt a budget consideration by the infamously cost-conscious CEO Alan Casden, with whom Van Tilburg has worked before.

The project’s aggressive sales pitch may play off of the cultural attractions and conveniences of the adjacent UCLA megacosm, but with rents in the $4 per square foot per month range—one bedrooms are listed starting at $2,940, two bedrooms at $3,875—the Palazzo is more in tune with NYU and New York real estate prices than LA’s. And let us not forget the rock climbing wall and concierge service. We are talking here of “a secluded five-star resort with the advantages of stepping out your door into a vibrant and dynamic cityscape,” in the words of Casden that hint at [Grove developer Rick] Caruso envy.

How “dynamic” that cityscape will be is questionable. Clearly, neither Palazzo’s residences and retail nor its streetscaping are designed to serve the penny-pinching, poor-tipping college crowd that in the past so animated Westwood and made it particularly attractive to that forever-18 crowd. Especially fun were the weekend nights when the village’s array of first-run landmark movie theaters existed. For a while, it was LA’s premier pedestrian scene.

But that scene has long languished, following several nasty incidents over the past few decades that prompted a security-concerned UCLA to try to keep its students on campus by providing more on-site housing and diversions. Meanwhile, the obtrusive wannabe Bruin teenagers from the Valley who used to hang out in the village flocked to Santa Monica’s Third Street Promenade and elsewhere to act out.

Casden was quite direct in his remarks at the opening, declaring that the hope of the Palazzo is that it will attract deep-pocketed residents and visitors to the faded village, and spur its revitalization and property values, even in these tough times. Echoing this hope for a new community in Westwood of “new people and new top-tier retailers” was Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, ever alert to both old and new campaign contributors.

Conversely, that heralded revitalization was the paramount fear of those objecting to the project during its protracted planning stage, as they quixotically clung to a nostalgic vision of the area’s past as a comfortable college town catering to both students and the surrounding community of postgraduates and professionals. In addition, the feeling was that Westwood did not need to become a regional attraction to pump up its real estate, and in fact was potentially more valuable as a modest yet distinctive development.

Westwood Village was indeed once a village, designed in a fanciful Spanish style and in a suburban spirit to serve a burgeoning Los Angeles in the Roaring '20s. Planned by one of the more acclaimed land use designers of the time, Harland Bartholomew, the village was the focal point of a high-end housing tract developed by the Janss Corporation, adjacent to a new campus for UCLA that had outgrown its downtown location. Nevertheless, the hyped development dollars and anticipated local taxes that an ambitious high-end mixed-use project would divert from the adjacent wealthy municipal enclaves of Beverly Hills and Santa Monica was too much for the city of Los Angeles to ignore, even if it meant enduring some raucous public hearings and nasty press and turning its backs on UCLA’s fast-food and fast-forward crowd.

The politically-connected Casden persevered, cheered on by local real estate interests and city economists, who see the village’s future and their profits pinned to high-end development. And if the mixed-use Palazzo doesn’t quite work as hoped, and Westwood slips further into somnolence, perhaps a streetcar going up and down Glendon Avenue would help, just like at the Grove and the Americana. They are all beginning to look the same, anyway.

Sam Hall Kaplan