Better Neighborhood Plan fields community input before revision draft


San Francisco Japantown community members attended a meeting held at the Japanese Cultural and Community Center of Northern California (JCCCNC) on July 31 to discuss potential changes to the Japantown Better Neighborhood Plan (BNP). About 50 people — including project members, city employees and even District 5 Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi — attended the event.

The Japantown locals were invited to give their input at this third community meeting, which asked for feedback on suggested changes to the original plan first drafted in 2009. The suggestions made in the three meetings will help create a final draft with community recommendations to submit to the San Francisco Planning Commission in December.

WHAT MAKES JAPANTOWN, JAPANTOWN? — The Buchanan Mall with the Peace Pagoda at back in San Francisco’s Japantown. photo by Alec Yoshio MacDonald

The BNP Organizing committee members have been meeting to review the original draft plan. The plan aims to offer a vision and outline for the long-term sustainability and cultural preservation of Japantown.

Discussion topics at recent meetings have included: community land use, cultural character and the surrounding transit systems. The suggestions that have been raised at the meetings, as well as those received online, will be synthesized into the draft plan.

The most recent meeting allowed for discussion on community heritage and economic development. The meeting focused on the future use of landmarks, special use districts and the community land trust (CLT).

Paul Osaki, executive director of the JCCCNC and co-chair of the Community Heritage Subcommittee, explained that the community is being asked how it can keep Japantown vibrant through the preservation of “tangible resources.” Osaki stressed that the plan should not only preserve Japantown, but keep it as an economically viable facet of Japanese American life, not as a “living museum.”

Bob Hamaguchi, co-chair of the Community Economic Development and Japan Center Subcommittee, stressed that input from the community is important. “We really want your feedback,” he said. “We need you to affirm and elaborate details.”

People still have time to provide their thoughts prior to the final meeting in September. Community members are encouraged to e-mail feedback through the San Francisco Planning Department’s Website. This feedback will join the suggestions and concerns collected at the meeting to develop the final suggested revision for the plan that is due to the city.

Those at the meeting were split into two groups. One group discussed the cultural aspects while the other focused on economic development.


Changing with the Community

Osaki noted that Japanese Americans are dispersed and no longer base their lives in Japantown. He said that Japanese Americans, especially those of mixed race, have increased in numbers, but much of them live outside of Japantowns. Osaki noted that Japanese nationals also make up a significant portion of foreign-born people of Japanese descent living in the San Francsico Bay Area. However, they also do not live in Japantown.

Furthermore, Osaki noted, the Japanese American community is aging. He said that Japanese Americans are comparatively older than the national average.

Osaki asked how the Japantown community should reflect these changes in order to continue to serve as a cultural and economic center.

San Francisco’s Nihonmachi is one of the last three remaining Japantowns in the U.S. The fear of losing the community is all too real to many Japanese Americans.

The Nikkei community has been uprooted on more than one occasion, from their forced relocation and incarceration during World War II, to multiple rounds of urban redevelopment, which uprooted many Japanese Americans from their homes and businesses during the construction of the current Japan Center and surrounding areas. Many other cities, such as Sacramento and Stockton, also faced redevelopment, which essentially shuttered those Japantowns.

People were also asked what, in Japantown, needs to be preserved, lest the ethnic enclave’s identity be lost. Michael Buhler, executive director of the San Francisco Architectural Heritage, asked for people’s thoughts about making the Peace Pagoda a landmark.

“There are currently 262 city landmarks,” said Buhler. “None of them are currently recognizing Japanese Americans.”

The main building of Kokoro Assisted Living, located on Bush Street, is a city landmark, but is recognized for its former use as a Jewish synagogue.

No one opposed the idea of turning the Peace Pagoda into a landmark. Buhler explained the pagoda is owned by the city and is located on city land. Designation as a landmark would ”provide official recognition” of Japanese American heritage in San Francisco, said Buhler.

What Makes Japantown, Japantown?

Ken Kaji, co-chair of the Cultural Heritage Subcommittee, noted that the plan is considering which buildings and intangible resources should be preserved. The BNP compiled an inventory of businesses, services and organizations located throughout Japantown, including: the Northern California Cherry Blossom Festival and the Nihonmachi Street Fair, Kinmon Gakuen, Kinokuniya Book Store, Benkyodo, the JCCCNC, the Japanese Benevolent Society, and Japantown-based groups such as the Boy Scouts and the Nikkei basketball teams.

Kaji hopes that this list will help community members to decide “what makes Japantown, Japantown.”

Finally, Donna Graves, a historian consultant for the San Francisco Planning Department, asked if the community should use the special use district codes that were already laid out to aid the BNP.

The Japantown Special Use District, passed in 2006, aims to preserve Japantown’s character by imposing limitations on formula retail from opening shop in the district.

Graves said that Japantown’s designation as a special use district has enabled the city to prevent it from being radically changed without the consent of the local merchants and community members.

For example, formula retail, such as Starbucks, may not enter Japantown without prior review by the city on its plans. Graves described the BNP as a prescriptive document to improve and change Japantown to preserve and enrich the community, while the special use district conserves the neighborhood from changes that the community does not welcome.

The special use district must be addressed for future changes to Japantown through the BNP. The meeting’s organizers also tried to field opinions on how the special use district could serve a symbiotic approach with the BNP, or if they should remain separate entities.


Potential Community Land Trust

Community leaders Hiroshi Fukuda and Hamaguchi presented on the economic portion of the meeting, which discussed the possibility of a community land trust. The concept has previously been implemented in cities around the nation, including San Francisco, to grant affordable housing through community-owned housing projects. A potential Japantown land trust, however, would aim to secure land for commercial use, a first for the nation if it succeeds.

A community land trust would provide community land owners nonprofit status, and allow cheaper rents through grant subsidies. Through the community ownership of land in Japantown, community members hope to maintain the economic viability of cultural, historic and commercial assets by offering affordable long-term leases to tenants that would maintain the neighborhood character.

To identify key projects, Hamaguchi and Fukuda asked which potential buildings should be purchased as a trust, and what sorts of businesses should benefit from the land trust.

One of the key questions raised was, what approach should new businesses hoping to open in Japantown be required to take.

The discussion mostly focused on formula retail. Overall, the meeting participants hoped that some formula retail will remain welcome in Japantown, as long as the businesses add to, or maintain Nihonmachi’s character. Many suggested Uniqlo, a discount clothing store from Japan, as a business that would be welcomed.

Some stressed the importance of using the community land trust to benefit organizations that serve the community and arts. Fukuda added that community organizations and nonprofits should play a central role in encouraging younger generations to get involved and remain an integral part of the Japantown community. Another participant noted that theater and traditional arts groups were displaced already when they could not afford to stay in Japantown, removing them to cheaper districts such as the South of Market District.

Other participants suggested that Japantown needs playgrounds, family friendly spaces, and a commercial showcase to exhibit the latest in Japanese products, such as cars and electronics.

Mirkarimi gave a short speech on his hopes for the BNP’s success. He said that “having an SUD with muscle is essential,” and he would like to see the codes upgraded and modernized.

Mirkarimi alluded to his commitment to Japantown since Kintetsu Enterprises of America’s sale of the Japan Center to 3D Investments in 2006. He promised to bring 3D Investments, which he called “absentee landlords,” to speak with the city within the next few months to discuss the future of Japantown.

“We are long overdue with having a meeting with 3D,” said Mirkarimi. “It’s whether we’ll force property owners or work with them.”

Mirkarimi said he hopes to speak with an accountable liaison from 3D in the near future regarding designing an economic environment that preserves Japantown.

Mirkarimi promised to drive legislation forward and support the community land trust.

The BNP revisions have yet to reach a final draft after more than four years of work, but the final product is nearing completion. The subcommittees plan to continue meeting to discuss input from the community meetings before one final draft presentation on Sept. 10.


The BNP’s leaders welcome ideas for its draft of the plan. To send opinions or suggestions to the San Francisco Planning Department regarding the Japantown BNP, e-mail Visit’page=1692 for more information on the BNP.

The BNP will hold a final community meeting on Saturday, Sept. 10 from 9:30 a.m. to noon at the JCCCNC, located at 1840 Sutter St. in San Francisco’s Japantown, for a final presentation of the draft revisions for the plan. The public is invited to attend and listen to the changes and provide input before the final revision is sent in to the San Francisco Planning Department.

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