Revisions to the San Francisco Japantown Better Neighborhood Plan continue

It’s been more than a year and a half since the draft Japantown Better Neighborhood Plan (BNP) was published and more than three years since the initiative was originally launched. The plan, a joint effort between the City of San Francisco and the community, is meant to govern the future growth and preservation of San Francisco’s Japantown, one of only three Japantowns remaining in the U.S.

According to the San Francisco Planning Department, the goals of the Japantown BNP are to ensure Japantown’s role as “the historical and cultural heart of Japanese and Japanese American community,” promote its future as “a thriving commercial and retail district” and “home to residents and community-based institutions,” and encourage “a physically attractive and vibrant environment.”

Some of the draft’s original recommendations were called into question by community members and leaders after the BNP draft’s June-2009 release. And there was a general sense that the community needed to be more involved in the draft’s further development.

Since then, numerous events — for better or for worse — have affected the draft’s evolution. Funding has been lost and found. The BNP’s city planner left on sabbatical and then returned. And 3D Investments, the Southern California-based developer whose purchase of significant Japantown retail space sparked so much debate, has gone silent over its plans for ambitious renovations.

Committees have been formed and re-formed, community meetings held, and experts consulted, all in an effort to ensure that the plan — which covers everything from building height limitations to the fate of the Japantown malls — addresses the community’s historical, cultural and economic needs.

The results of these efforts have begun to solidify. The BNP Organizing Committee, the body charged with ensuring that the community’s voice is reflected in the plan, has been working the Planning Department and various city agencies. Subcommittee groups, which have been tackling different chapters of the BNP since last summer, have given their input. And feedback from a survey conducted by Nihonmachi Roots — a group of young community leaders — has been assessed. From this, a list of proposed changes has finally emerged.

Proposed Changes Emerge

These changes, roughly compiled in a 16-page spreadsheet, were reviewed at the latest meeting of the BNP Organizing Committee, held on Jan. 19 at the Union Bank Hospitality Room on Post Street. Bob Hamaguchi of the Japantown Task Force, presided over the meeting. And Paul Wermer, a Pacific Heights resident and consultant in sustainable development, reviewed a summary document of the changes.

The proposed changes include an array of recommendations, from growing resources for small business retention to countering proposed increases in building height limits. Many of the changes carry a similar theme: Keep the neighborhood personable by promoting pedestrian traffic, accessible parking and culturally appropriate architecture and landscaping. And make sure that any renovations to Japantown’s malls and the adjacent, city-owned parking structure do not push out local businesses.

The formation of a Community Benefit District (CBD), which would provide services to the neighborhood in addition to those of the city — such as marketing and promoting events, added security, sidewalk cleanup and beautification — is one option still under consideration. The proposed CBD would fall under the leadership of the Japantown Task Force. Another option would be merging with the neighboring Fillmore Jazz CBD.

“Expert consultants now are being engaged to review the economic feasibility of potential changes such as keeping Japan Center substantially as is, with only modest remodeling and completion of deferred maintenance” the Organizing Committee said in a statement released after the meeting.

Exploring Neighborhood Ownership Options

Several major points in the proposed changes hinge on the potential creation of a Community Land Trust (CLT). According to the committee’s statement, the CLT is a prospective “tool to preserve space for the existing small business community.”

The CLT, if proved a feasible option, would create a community stake in the Japan Center and other important commercial properties. Burlington Associates, a national consulting cooperative that specializes in CLTs, has been hired to develop a study and outreach plan on the creation of such a trust. The study will take place from February through May of this year.

In addition, Burlington Associates have asked for the formation of a Community Land Trust Committee to partner in the study. This entity would consist of nine to 10 people representing beneficiaries, community organizations and subject-matter experts, such as property managers.

It is said that a trust like that which the BNP is exploring would be the first of its kind in the country. Previous CLTs in the U.S. have held residential — not commercial properties — and mostly for the purpose of retaining affordable housing. Some board members warned against tying in too many of the BNP draft’s changes with the CLT concept until the study is completed.

Next Steps

The BNP Organizing Committee is scheduled to meet again in February. Moving forward, it plans to launch the community review phase of the proposed changes. Part of this outreach will include a series of public meetings each focusing on two or three chapters of the BNP draft.

More Information

Information about the BNP can be found on the San Francisco Planning Department’s Website, www.sf-planning.org. To learn more about Burlington Associates and the history of Community Land Trusts, visit burlingtonassociates.com.

Members of the public are welcome to attend BNP meetings. Please see the Calendar for times and locations.

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