Japantown Plan Moving Forward Slowly: Community Members Have “Second Chance” to Make Their Voices Heard

Community members still have a chance to influence the fate of the Japantown Better Neighborhood Plan (BNP), which, once adopted, will govern how San Francisco’s Japantown will develop over the next several decades. Since property owners have postponed development due to the economic crisis and lack of city funding has slowed the planning process, community members now have additional, though dwindling, time to make their voices heard.

On Sept. 9, the Japantown Better Neighborhood Plan Organizing Committee hosted a meeting to invite community members to discuss ideas and opinions about the goals for Japantown’s development and how best to translate those ideas into a workable development plan.

On June 25, the City’s Planning Commission passed a resolution that acknowledged the draft of the plan, but allowed that it needed more time to evolve before it could be adopted, said Planning Commissioner Bill Sugaya at the meeting held at the Japanese Cultural and Community Center of Northern California (JCCCNC) in San Francisco’s Japantown. According to this resolution, the Planning Commission acknowledges that the draft is a “significant milestone marking years of broad community planning efforts and represents many of the community’s goals,” but did not feel the document was ready to move on to its next phase, undergoing an Environmental Impact Review.

The main goals for development include securing Japantown’s future as both the historical and cultural heart of the Japanese and Japanese American community and a thriving commercial district, as well as its future as a vibrant, physically attractive home for residents and community organizations.

According to Sugaya, staffing issues have slowed down the process for completing a solid BNP. The key planner involved in the process — Rosemary Dudley — was let go due to budget cuts and another supervisor, Ken Rich, has taken a sabbatical. Currently, the commission is seeking funding for a half-time planner to supervise the project, who would potentially start in October or November.

Community members have several more months to voice concerns and make contributions to the BNP before it will be considered again.

“I think the action the Commission has taken recognizes that we didn’t feel the plan was ready to be adopted,” Sugaya said. “I’m optimistic that this second chance you have will really work to get a plan you want. I would try to get organized as soon as possible and let it be known to the Planning Department that you are ready to move ahead.”

Paul Osaki, executive director of the JCCCNC, encouraged the roughly 70 assembled participants to engage in the process.

“Tonight is really grassroots,” Osaki said. “We’d like to see what you would like to have happen in the next phase. This process will continue, but not forever. Something will be approved by the city and that will determine what happens in Japantown for the next 50, 60 years.”

In addition to the presentation by Sugaya, the meeting included a panel discussion and a brainstorming session that allowed for community members’ comments. Criticisms and suggestions spanned multiple topics, evidencing the amount of passion for creating a strong plan, but also the difficulty of maintaining focus and pleasing everyone involved, especially given such a complex and involved process.

Panelist Quillan Rusky, a college student who is involved with the Japanese Community Youth Council, bemoaned the lack of youth involvement in creating the plan. “The process was a real run-around and there was a lack of outreach,” Rusky said. “We had a chance to develop a plan from all aspects and we failed completely. People call this our second chance. This is our last chance.”

For panelist and San Francisco Japantown community member Glynis Nakahara, the process represents a chance for community members to deeply consider who they are and what kind of community they want. “What is Japantown and who is the Japanese American community?” Nakahara said she has been asking herself. “I’d like to see a shared vision. There should be commonality.”

Others expressed concerns about the potential lack of parking during construction, especially with a new hospital slated to open in the area that could stress the parking situation further.

Local merchants said they simply could not understand the process and it was impossible for them to plan for the future of their businesses since the plan is so unclear.

One community member expressed frustration that the idea for creating an arts center had been dismissed due to funding difficulties, without any creative thought on how to lower a potential cost. Another speaker exhibited anger about how the process has focused so much on the developers’ profit making rather than the needs of the community.

“This has been a painful planning process,” Osaki acknowledged. He added, however, that the community should also take advantage of its potential. “But this is an exciting time because it’s the first time this community has had input in planning. It’s exciting to have this opportunity.”

Click here for more information, about the Japantown Better Neighborhood Plan draft.

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