COURTING DREAMS: Los Angeles City Council grants Little Tokyo sports complex final approval


IF YOU BUILD IT, THEY WILL COME — An artist’s renderings of the Budokan of Los Angeles. images courtesy of Little Tokyo Service Center

ACTIVIST AND ATHLETE — Sarah Johnson, a fifth-grader who plays with the Pasadena Bruins, speaks at a press conference on the importance of having the Budokan project in Little Tokyo. Little Tokyo Service Center Executive Director Bill Watanabe is at left. images courtesy of Little Tokyo Service Center

LOS ANGELES — The Little Tokyo Service Center (LTSC) inched closer to its goal of building a recreation center in the Japanese American community when the City of Los Angeles gave its final approval on May 17 to develop the Budokan of Los Angeles.

The City Council voted to grant LTSC a long-term ground lease to develop the major sports and activity center in downtown Los Angeles’ Little Tokyo district. The Budokan project will receive a 25-year lease, with an option to renew for another 25 years on city-owned land located at 237-249 Los Angeles St., between Second and Third streets on the western edge of Little Tokyo.

City Council approval of the Budokan ground lease is the legal document that allows the developer to take control of the site, explained Bill Watanabe, LTSC’s executive director. The nonprofit organization would pay $1 per year and provide such services as building the $20-million facility, having a venue for youth activities and sports, and improving the area’s economic development.

He described the City approval as “a big step to first base, a huge major step, and we still have a ways to go … but just getting to this point is very satisfying and it brings us that much closer.”

The City is benefiting from its contribution of the property, which they appraised at about $7 million, Watanabe pointed out. “We feel that we are returning to the City much more … We will be bringing in about 100,000 users of the facility every year who will shop at the shops, eat at the restaurants. Those visitors will be paying sales taxes and helping to support the businesses in Little Tokyo who will pay business taxes. So there will be a cascading effect.”

The City will also receive about 10 percent of receipts from the parking lots in the area, Watanabe added. “All of that combined is a good investment return for the City. And the community will be gaining a great new venue and great resource.”

IF YOU BUILD IT, THEY WILL COME — An artist’s renderings of the Budokan of Los Angeles. images courtesy of Little Tokyo Service Center

The Budokan project will consist of a 38,000-square-foot facility that will include a four-court gymnasium, community space and a rooftop garden with a jogging track and will feature a variety of sports (basketball, volleyball and martial arts), special events, tournaments, and programming for all ages.

“We’d like to cram in as many possible uses as possible,” Watanabe said.

The complex will be built atop a site that currently contains a City parking lot and two vacant buildings that will be demolished. LTSC plans to build a 150-space parking structure underneath it.

“Creating a gymnasium and community space in Little Tokyo is a longtime dream that I have shared with the Little Tokyo Service Center and the entire Little Tokyo community. Today, we have taken a definitive step forward and moved closer to realizing the potential of the Budokan Recreation Center. From creating 130 new jobs to generating millions in tax revenues to support tourism, Budokan will be a great project for our city,” said Council President Pro Tempore Jan Perry, who worked closely with LTSC to ensure the completion of the ground lease.

“With the help of Councilwoman Jan Perry and community support, we’ve been able to convince the City to allow us to build on that site,” Watanabe commented. “I’m very grateful to the City … It shows a great faith on their part that this will be a good project.”


Vision of Diversity

Budokan roughly translates as “martial arts hall” in Japanese and is derived from the Nippon Budokan, a large arena in Tokyo originally constructed for the 1964 Olympics, which today serves as a multi-purpose facility that caters to sports and entertainment. In 2009, LTSC changed the name of its project from the Little Tokyo Recreation Center to the Budokan of Los Angeles, a title more reflective of its broader vision.

Basketball, volleyball and martial arts are all popular activities in the Japanese American community, with thousands of participants playing in tournaments and leagues ranging from children and youth to adult leagues, and there is no place for them downtown, Watanabe noted.

“I’m hoping that by building this, it’ll be a place where young people, especially from the Nikkei community, come and play and have activities,” he said.

At the same time, this is not just for the Nikkei, it’s for the whole neighborhood, he said. “We want to have a balanced program where we can attract ethnic young people to come and play, but also be responsive to the needs of the non-ethnic people in the area that surrounds the project.”

One of LTSC’s goals is to make it diverse, with as many groups as possible using the facility, Watanabe said. “We can operate from early in the morning to late at night seven days a week, with senior classes, after-school programs, Japanese American basketball, and maybe the Skid Row folks sometimes in the afternoons.”


Basketball Players Excited

IF YOU BUILD IT, THEY WILL COME — Interior the Budokan of Los Angeles. images courtesy of Little Tokyo Service Center

The Pasadena Bruins, a community-based Japanese American organization offering a basketball program to Asian young people within the Nikkei community, is interested in utilizing the Budokan. The group has 36 teams of boys and girls ranging from kindergarten to 12th grade. They also have several adult men and women teams.

“The organization is very excited about the Budokan project,” stated Commissioner Dan Nakauchi. “Now that it is becoming a reality, everybody in our organization is anxious to get the ball rolling. For quite awhile, most people went to Little Tokyo only to eat and usually only when they were in the vicinity. People go to Little Tokyo also to visit the museum, but only once in a while … With the Budokan, families will be in Little Tokyo every week.”

The Pasadena Bruins are planning to help this project “as much as we can, in any capacity needed,” Nakauchi declared. “There are many families in our community that are directly connected to Little Tokyo and see the potential of the Budokan, not only as a sports venue, but as a gathering place to re-expose Little Tokyo to the younger generations.”


Kendo Group Support

The Southern California Kendo Federation (SCKF) is “happy to have a facility dedicated to the arts of budo in Little Tokyo and we hope to create a central atmosphere that merges kendo with an area of long standing with the Japanese American community,” stated spokesperson Tim Yuge. “Previous to World War II and in the post-war era, kendo participated in Little Tokyo and still continues to participate during the Nisei Week Festival in August. However, the L.A. Budokan will create more of a presence for kendo and other budo art forms throughout the year.”

The SCKF consists of 21 dojos in the Southern California area, from San Diego to Los Angeles to Santa Barbara, with a total membership of approximately 790 members. They also have members who practice the art of iaido as well.

“We are hopeful that our members will actively support the Budokan project and SCKF will make a valiant effort to assist the LTSC in making the project a reality,” Yuge added.


Westside Volleyball

The organizers of Westside Volleyball have been in support of the Budokan for the last 17 years, stated spokesman David Nagano. “They realize the value of such a great location and the idea of having a facility that can have larger events over time.”

Westside Volleyball is a 30-year-old nonprofit volleyball league that began when Asian American volleyball players wanted to play more leagues and tournaments than were currently available, according to Nagano. It has grown to five leagues throughout Southern California and multiple weekend tournaments every month. There are generally around 2,500 volleyball players playing every month.

In order to help the Budokan capital campaign, Nagano announced, “Westside volleyball is ready to be part of the outreach to young adults that typically populate its ranks.”


Capital Campaign

LTSC will host a kickoff reception around the first week of August, launching a major capital campaign to raise $22 million, to cover the costs for the facility, a parking structure and pre-development expenses, Watanabe disclosed.

Completion depends on how much money and how quickly they can raise it, he noted. “I think the most optimistic time frame would be two years to raise the money and two years to finish the construction.”

The capital campaign will target a large number of government sources (federal, state, county and city), and foundations, corporations and individuals for funding and major naming opportunities.

“The Budokan project has traveled a long road and after approximately 19 years, it now has a permanent home,” stated Watanabe. “We will be very excited to one day open the doors to this major sports and activity center, because it will serve as a major destination site for large scale sporting events, especially for martial arts tournaments, which has no dedicated venue.”

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