New Alternative Proposed for Little Tokyo Light Rail

LOS ANGELES — Residents, workers and business people in Little Tokyo, who had been concerned about the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s (MTA) plan to possibly run a light rail connector line above ground through this historic Japanese American enclave, heard better news recently with a proposal by a community group for a fully underground alternative.

The MTA aims to build a regional connector line to close a two-mile gap and connect the Gold Line from Pasadena with the Blue Line from Long Beach and the Expo Line (under construction, will go to Culver City and eventually to Santa Monica). In early November, the Little Tokyo Community Council (LTCC) voted to oppose both aboveground and underground build alternatives presented by the MTA and urged them to come up with another plan.

The new all-underground line, if implemented, would go under First and Alameda, cut diagonally southwest under the Office Depot property, under Second and Central, west along Second Street about nine blocks to Hope, then southwest to the station at Seventh and Flower/Figueroa. Little Tokyo, located in the eastern portion downtown, bounded by Los Angeles Street on the north, First Street on the north, Alameda on the east, and Third on the south (although there are numerous Nikkei businesses, temples and organizations just outside of those boundaries).

Dolores Roybal Saltarelli, project manager for the MTA, said Metro has been meeting with the stakeholders, especially the LTCC, and “they had concerns about the underground alternative that goes under Second Street and has the at-grade connection at First and Alameda. We met with them and … the developer of the Nikkei Center property, Jon Kaji, approached us and asked what it would take to be completely underground.”

Because of the developer’s initiative, Metro now has an additional alternative they would like to include in the draft Environmental Impact Report, she announced. “Instead of being at-grade at First and Alameda, we’re adding a station underneath the Office Depot property (between First and Second and Alameda and Central), and we’re under First and Alameda (the at-grade alternative would have crossed this intersection above ground; another alternative would have skirted Little Tokyo completely) … So the intersection of First and Alameda would remain the same as it is today.”

Kaji, a co-developer of Nikkei Center, LLC on the northeast corner of First and Alameda streets, divulged, “Since the proposed Nikkei Center will be on vacant 4.5 acres, we’ve offered that site … for construction and for staging of materials and equipment for the project … We think the connector will be a tremendous added value to the Nikkei Center project.”

The MTA hopes to start construction on the project in 2013 or 2014 and have the connector line in service by 2018. Measure R, to fund transportation projects and anticipated federal grants are funding the project.

The fully underground alternative will employ tunnel-boring machines, launching them from Second and Hope or Second and Central. The machines will not be visible to businesses on Second Street, Roybal Saltarelli said. “However, they’ll see us when we’re doing cut-and-cover — that’s when we rip up the street, patch it over with concrete deck, then continue the structure activities beneath that.”

In Little Tokyo, the MTA is not doing any cut-and-cover work on Second Street for the fully underground alternative, according to the Metro project manager.

Discussions with the MTA

“Metro is now open to the idea of moving the regional connector underground, Kaji said. “That can help reduce construction and traffic impact and … should be a boon for the Little Tokyo economy.”

Nikkei Center is engaged in discussions with the MTA, Kaji revealed. “It would be our hope that the Little Tokyo/Arts District station would be integrated into the Nikkei Center project. We’re looking at transit-oriented developments in Japan as providing good examples on how to incorporate transit so that it blends well with retail, residential, office and public space, and ultimately make Little Tokyo a destination.”

Kaji added, “I’m highly optimistic about the future of Little Tokyo, that the community is now better positioned to determine its future growth on its own terms, rather than be subject to the visions of others from outside our community.”

The Nikkei Center is now in the fundraising process, Kaji said. “The purchase of the land is $44 million. Our initial fundraising target is $50 million. The overall project cost, including land, will be more than $300 million. This could be the largest Japanese American development in the history of our community.”

JANM at ‘Ground Zero’

Akemi Kikumura Yano, executive director of the Japanese American National Museum, noted after meeting with MTA officials on Dec. 16 that this latest alternative is “far more appealing to Little Tokyo people.”

MTA working closely with the Nikkei Center “strengthens MTA’s appeal to the Feds for appropriations because they will be working with a for-profit organization that is going to be a vital part of Little Tokyo along with a governmental agency,” she opined.

The fully underground option sounds better to the JANM chief. “We’re trying to find the best remedy. It seems like LTCC is more comfortable with this new option.”

According to Kikumura Yano, “Our concern with the at-grade plan was that there would be trains across First and Alameda every so many minutes … We’re very concerned in terms of traffic flow and just basic disruption to Little Tokyo that having a train cross a very busy intersection every so many minutes would not be good for the community.”

She also wondered if this good for Little Tokyo. “We were concerned that, in the short run–it could take from four to 10 years before they complete the project—many small businesses would go out of business … If they were to tunnel under Alameda Street and have their work station set up right on the corner of the square block between Alameda and Central, at First and Second, it would be quite disruptive for the Museum and for people coming to Little Tokyo. When there’s construction on the road like that, it puts a lot of people out of business because people are discouraged from coming here.”

She also expressed concerns about the 25,000 schoolchildren who come on school buses to visit JANM yearly. “They come on buses, and … parking is quite an issue if they were to tear up the streets. Where do the buses park when the children come in to see our exhibits in the Museum?’

Is It Nonsense?

Sadao Kimura, owner of Kimura Photomart on Second Street, doesn’t like the idea of a Little Tokyo connector line. “It would make more sense to connect Seventh Street to Union Station,” he said. “Maybe, because I’m not up to date on everything, I think the line should be connected at Union Station, so people arriving on Metrolink from San Bernardino, Riverside and other places can get off the commuter trains and connect (to light rails) at Union Station.”

Kimura, whose family business has been in Little Tokyo 55 years, said construction on Second Street “shouldn’t impact us that much, unless our building starts sinking the way buildings started to sink in Hollywood (during the 1990s Red Line construction).”

Roybal Saltarelli explained Metro opted not to adopt a route running directly from Union Station to Seventh and Figueroa streets after studying 33 alternatives — looking at potential sites, engineering constraints, community constraints and environmental issues — and choosing four alternatives. The MTA subsequently added Kaji’s alternative.

There are no fears of cave-ins, she added. “We’ve progressed extensively from our experience on the Red Line. The Eastside Extension has been a very successful project … We’ve learned quite a bit from that.”

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