Community urged to provide input on J-Town Better Neighborhood Plan


A meeting was held at the Japanese Cultural and Community Center of Northern California (JCCCNC) on April 27 to further discuss the draft of the Japantown Better Neighborhood Plan (BNP), the document that will serve as the guideline for the development, promotion and preservation of San Francisco’s Japantown during the next two decades.

Paul Osaki of JCCCNC

“Sixty-eight years ago, we didn’t have a choice,” said JCCCNC Executive Director Paul Osaki in reference to the incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II, which forever altered the historic ethnic enclave. “But today we have a choice. We have a voice.”

Osaki told the more than 70 attendees that community suggestions and ideas were much needed. “We need to make sure the community takes ownership of the plan,” he added.

At this point, a draft of the BNP, which was acknowledged but not adopted in June 2009, will be undergoing a “community review” phase. Through surveys, online input ( and a series of subcommittee meetings, which the public is encouraged to attend, it is the hope of community leaders and organizations that the plan will come to reflect the true wishes of the community, forming a blueprint for future generations.

Though the process of developing the plan has spanned almost three years, the draft was seen by many in Japantown to be lacking in several areas, particularly the aspects of community heritage and the future of the Japan Center, which includes the former Miyako and Kintetsu malls (recently renamed Japan Center East and Japan Center West) and forms Japantown’s economic hub.

The proposed renovation of the center and its underground parking structure has been of particular concern, since this could potentially uproot current merchants, raise rents and discourage patrons who visit the neighborhood by car.

The two malls were sold to Beverly Hills-based 3D Investments, a real estate development company, in 2006. The company also owns the Hotel Kabuki, Hotel Tomo and Sundance Kabuki Cinemas.

Economic crises and pending city budget cuts have created additional concerns. These include potential cuts in funding for San Francisco Planning Department staff members to work with the community on amendments to the plan.

San Francisco Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi.

San Francisco Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi of District 5, who arrived at the meeting direct from a Board of Supervisors meeting, encouraged the community to be more vocal about its needs to City Hall, stating that the neighborhood was at an “important junction.” “Be more visible in a collective way,” he said. “Others need to be reminded what’s on the community’s mind.”

Mirkarimi, who has represented the district encompassing Japantown since 2004, added that “absent of what 3D’s developers decide to do or not to do, this does not give cause to delay in the planning or resources.”

In a March 25 memo, John Rahaim, director of the San Francisco Planning Department, had suggested that the half-time employee allocated to the BNP be reduced to only 10 percent or 200 hours until the community review process is completed; then the hours would return to half-time.

Rahaim stated that this could be as late as the end of the coming fiscal year or July 2011. However, the latest timeline produced by the organizing committee has slated the community review period to last from May through August 2010.

The timeline, according to Bob Hamaguchi of the Japantown BNP Organizing Committee, aims to have these issues sufficiently explored by September, when the committee will be ready to work with the Planning Department to prepare and develop any amendments to the extant draft.

The committee hopes the draft can gain final approval by the Planning Commission in February 2011, and has requested that the director not temporarily reduce the half-time employee allocation, which currently remains in the budget, during the community review period.

“Yes, this plan is the Planning Department’s plan, and yes, the city will make the ultimate decision of what the plan will contain,” Hamaguchi said, “but I remain confident that our input and opinions will be heard and respected and ultimately determine what is approved.”

The BNP Organizing Committee has created four subcommittees to which the public is encouraged to join. Most will meet biweekly in various Japantown locations through the end of August.

• The Community Heritage Subcommittee, led by Osaki and Aya Ino of nihonmachiROOTS, addresses Chapter 2 of the BNP, which establishes the historical and cultural background information on Japantown and strategies to preserve its heritage. The group meets on the first and third Wednesday monthly, from 4:30 to 6 p.m., at the JCCCNC (1840 Sutter St.).

• The Community and Economic Development/Japan Center Subcommittee, which deals with Chapters 3 and 9 of the plan, will be headed by Hamaguchi and Hiroshi Fukuda. It will work on aspects of the BNP concerned with attracting and maintaining businesses, community organizations, cultural events and visitors in Japantown, as well as issues surrounding the renovation of the Japan Center malls and garage. The group meets on the first and third Wednesday monthly, from 3 to 4 p.m., at the Union Bank Hospitality Room in the Japan Center (1675 Post St.).

Panelists Diane Onizuka, Karen Kai and Glynis Nakahara.

• The Land Use/Built Form Subcommittee, chaired by Karen Kai, will focus on city regulations (BNP chapters 4 and 5), addressing topics such as building heights and facades and zoning concerns. The group held its first meeting on Thurs., May 6, at Nihonmachi Little Friends (1830 Sutter St.). Future meeting dates to be determined.

• The Transportation/Public Realm Subcommittee, led by Diane Onizuka, will address Chapters 6 and 7, discussing what the community wants from its public spaces, concerns about parking and safety, as well as how people get to Japantown. The group meets on the second and fourth Wednesday monthly, from 3 to 4 p.m., at the Union Bank Hospitality Room in the Japan Center (1675 Post St.).

In addition, the “young leaders” organization nihonmachiROOTS is welcoming community input on the BNP through its Website, Representatives from the group passed out surveys, as well as a simplified version of the BNP, at the meeting and told attendees that the organization was hoping to “build consensus on an issue-based level” and “bring consensus to the Better Neighborhood Plan.”

Kiyomi Tanaka of nihonmachiROOTS. photos by Vivien Kim Thorp/Nichi Bei Weekly

Copies of “The BNP Made Simple: A Summary of the Draft of the Japantown Better Neighborhood Plan” can be downloaded at

At the close of the meeting, after a question-and-answer session, Mirkarimi told attendees that there will be larger questions to tackle once the BNP is complete. “Census pre-data is showing that the fastest growing demographic in San Francisco is over the age of 60. This part of the city is the epicenter,” he said. “Of equally important concern is that the younger generation of Japanese Americans can continue the work of so many who shouldered it before them.”

To view the BNP draft chapters, go to’page=1692 or purchase a print copy for $40 by contacting the San Francisco Planning Department at (415) 558-6307 or Bob Hamaguchi of the Japantown Task Force at (415) 346-1239. Free CDs are also available.

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