Japantown plan timeline ‘on track’ as city allocates new staff


Bob Hamaguchi (right), co-chair of the Japan Center and Economic Development subcommittee, addresses the crowd. Photo by Vivien Kim Thorp/Nichi Bei Weekly

The most recent Japantown Better Neighborhood Plan (BNP) community meeting was held June 16 at the Japanese Cultural and Community Center of Northern California (JCCCNC) in San Francisco’s Japantown. The Japantown BNP, a program of the San Francisco Planning Department, aims to create guidelines for the development, improvement and preservation of the historic neighborhood during the next 20 years.

The meeting was the first since a “community review” phase began this May. During this period, slated to last through August, various subcommittees have been meeting at least once a month, garnering public opinion and suggestions on changes to the plan.

The subcommittees are organized under the Japantown BNP Organizing Committee, a coalition of local community members and leaders. Each group focuses on a specific chapter(s) of the plan, organized as the Community Heritage, Public Realm and Transportation, Built Form and Land Use, and Japan Center and Economic Development subcommittees.

At the meeting, Paul Osaki — executive director of the JCCCNC and co-leader of the community heritage subcommittee — told attendees that things were still “on track” with the timeline for the plan, which hopes to begin work on amendments to the original draft in September. “We’re kicking off a new phase of the planning process,” he said. “We’re making sure this plan is something the community is supportive of.”

Alternative Ownership

Several strategies for addressing growing concerns over the Japan Center, its small businesses and other important neighborhood properties were discussed. One strategy is for a new feasibility study and analysis of the Japan Center that would consider leaving the current mall mostly intact.

“What didn’t get looked at was if you could you make modifications to the existing malls and not close the garage during renovations,” said Bob Hamaguchi, co-chair of the Community and Economic Development/Japan Center subcommittee and executive director of the Japantown Taskforce, in an interview following the meeting. “That’s something we definitely want to do this time.”

An earlier study by consulting firm Strategic Economics based its scenarios on renovation plans that the financially troubled mall owners 3D Investments backed away from in late 2008. This month, the Kyoto Grand Hotel and Garden in Los Angeles’ Little Tokyo, also owned by 3D, defaulted on a $33.6 million loan, which could lead to the property’s foreclosure, the Los Angeles Times reported.

San Francisco District 5 Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi — whose district includes Japantown — asked attendees to help him lobby City Hall for $50,000 in funds to research alternative ownership of the mall.

“We could use the $50,000 to research the creation of a community land trust in Japantown,” he said, “or for something that makes the community an owner so that the community has equity and can be a stakeholder.”

Osaki added that land trusts, which could be used for other important sites in Japantown, “could preserve ownership of land in the community” and help maintain “culturally relevant small businesses.”

Though a commercial version of the community land trust has yet to be implemented in San Francisco, Paul Lord of the San Francisco Planning Department cited Seattle’s Pike Place Market as an example of a successful alternative ownership plan. A nonprofit corporation chartered by the city of Seattle in 1973 runs Pike Place, which was founded in the early 1900s. Also, a residential building in San Francisco’s Chinatown, the Fong Building, successfully used a community land trust to prevent the eviction of its low-income tenants and redevelopment of the property.

New Leadership and Support

The formation of the Japantown Community Planning Council was also discussed at the meeting. The entity would process the public input collected during the community review phase and work to create amendment proposals. During the meeting, subcommittee leaders divided attendees into groups to get feedback on the qualities they’d want in a council member and how council members should vote on community recommendations.

Since the last general community meeting, held on April 27, several budget concerns have been remedied. Funds were secured for a BNP half-time employee from the planning department.

Perhaps the biggest change is that the BNP has a new planner. Lord replaced Ken Rich, who recently accepted a position in the mayor’s office. Lord will be the third planner to work on the BNP, which was started in 2007. Another planner had been let go earlier in the process due to budget cuts.

A senior planner who has been working for the department since the 1980s, Lord was confident that — with clear community input — he could write the plan as scheduled. “Your voice is one of the most important,” he told attendees. “This is your plan.”

Lord has been involved in developing plans for neighborhoods and communities throughout the city, including South of Market in the late 1980s, Van Ness Street in the 1990s and Hunters Point Shipyard in the late 1990s. In addition to the Japantown BNP, he is also representing the planning department for the Western SoMa Citizens Planning Task Force, currently undergoing an environmental impact analysis. (The Japantown BNP is scheduled to begin this phase in spring 2011.) Lord cited his work with the Filipino community in Western SoMa as an example of his success in addressing cultural concerns for a historic neighborhood.

Subcommittee Updates

Subcommittee chairs offered notes from previous meetings on posters and handouts. Many recommendations centered on beautification, including the creation of Japanese gardens, wall murals and more open space with landscaping throughout the neighborhood. Other suggestions dealt with property and included furthering research on buildings eligible for the National Register of Historic Places and creating incentives for property owners to preserve external features. Feedback also included the desire for improved access to space for community activities and concerns about making more areas pedestrian friendly.

In a later interview, Diane Onizuka, co-chair of the Transportation and Public Realm subcommittee and a vice president at Union Bank, said she hoped the feedback from the general meeting will help the committee refocus and create new directions for community outreach. She and Hamaguchi both expressed enthusiasm at having planner Long onboard.

“Now that we have a city representative who can help us bring these complex ideas down to earth and put them in laymen’s terms, people can explain the Better Neighborhood Plan better,” said Onizuka. “And I think we may get better community understanding and participation.”

Subcommittee chairs expressed concern that more input was needed and that some groups, including seniors, may not be adequately represented. They are still looking for ways to encourage more involvement. In the meantime, subcommittee meetings, always open to the public, will continue at the regularly scheduled times.

The date of the next general community meeting is still to be determined.

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