Planning for a better SF Japantown neighborhood


PLANNING FOR A BETTER NEIGHBORHOOD — The Buchanan Street Mall in San Francisco’s Japantown, one of the locations considered for landmarking and preservation in the Better Neighborhood Plan. photo by Tomo Hirai/Nichi Bei Weekly

PLANNING FOR A BETTER NEIGHBORHOOD — The Buchanan Street Mall in San Francisco’s Japantown, one of the locations considered for landmarking and preservation in the Better Neighborhood Plan. photo by Tomo Hirai/Nichi Bei Weekly

San Francisco Japantown’s community members convened to discuss the Better Neighborhood Plan (BNP) draft proposals on the morning of Sept. 10. BNP organizers gave a quick presentation of the proposed draft plan to be submitted to the San Francisco Planning Department on Oct. 27.

Close to 40 people attended the meeting, held at the Japanese Cultural and Community Center of Northern California, including BNP committee members and San Francisco Planning Commissioner Bill Sugaya.

The BNP, which originated in 2007 following the sale of the Japan Center properties from Kintetsu Enterprises Co. of America to Beverly Hills-based 3D Investments, sought to create an economic framework to preserve Japantown. Since the San Francisco Planning Department presented the original draft plan to the community in 2009, however, its focus has changed.

Bob Hamaguchi of the BNP Organizing Committee noted that the revised draft plan of the BNP includes feedback from community members to ensure the plans for revitalization and future growth and changes to San Francisco’s Japantown will reflect the community’s needs.

The revised plans, once submitted to the city, will be reworked and given back to the community to read over before a final set of laws are developed to help direct the coming decades of development for the ethnic enclave, one of only three remaining Japantowns in the United States.

“The past 18 months has allowed us to come up with what we want in changes to the plan,” said Hamaguchi.

The current revision is based on a plan drafted in 2009. While the draft changes are based on community input, Hamaguchi asked for compromise and acknowledged that “not everyone will be satisfied.”

While the original plan emphasized capital development in a more financially secure time, the new plan has adopted four new goals that intend to preserve San Francisco’s Japantown for the future. The four goals are: to secure Japantown’s future as the historical and cultural heart of Japanese and Japanese American community; secure Japantown’s future as a thriving commercial and retail district; secure Japantown’s future as a home to residents and community-based institutions and secure Japantown’s future as a physically attractive and vibrant environment.

The plan aspires to maintain Japantown as a safe and vibrant place to live, shop and work, while promoting its historical value to regional audiences.

BNP committee members took turns speaking about proposed changes to the plan. The meeting also included two Q-and-A format sessions on cultural and economic proposals.


Preserving a Rich Cultural Legacy

JAPANTOWN PROPOSED ZONING — This map shows the initial Special Use District (SUD) ordinance boundaries enacted by the city of San Francisco, the expanded boundaries for the Better Neighborhood Plan (BNP), the proposed Japantown Neighborhood Commercial District and zoning designations for the rest of the neighborhood. courtesy of the San Francisco Planning Department

Addressing Community Heritage, Ken Kaji spoke about the goal for the plan to create a Social Heritage District ordinance through the use of the Special Use District (SUD) designation. The section aspires to preserve the cultural legacy of past traditions, language, artifacts and events that have shaped Japantown’s history.

While there is an SUD ordinance already enacted by the city to control possible redevelopment of Japantown, a new set of laws and codes are currently being drafted to replace them. Kaji described the current codes as an “interim measure,” while the proposed Social Heritage District along with related preservation criteria, design standards and zoning controls will help preserve the tangible and intangible cultural resources used or enjoyed by community members.

Donna Graves, a historian based out of Berkeley, Calif., commented on the vibrancy of San Francisco’s Japantown compared to others.

“I was working on the Preserving California’s Japantown Project and visited some of the other former Japantown sites up and down California,” said Graves. “You ask people who live there now and they never knew a Japantown even existed there — the public history is mostly lost.”

She said the BNP’s mission in San Francisco’s Japantown was “really historic” and that it should keep “authenticity … in the forefront.”

While the BNP intends to create a more structured code, Kaji noted that there is a struggle in classifying the “why and how” of cultural assets in Japantown.


What Needs to Be Preserved?

While the BNP has created the Social Heritage Inventory — a list of tangible and intangible resources in the form of stores, events and organizations used by the community — the process of classifying what specifically needs to be preserved and how, is still being debated.

Furthermore, the initial BNP boundaries did not include a number of proposed Japantown landmarks. Kaji said the Social Heritage District should expand to identify and include these locations, though not affect the neighborhood with economic ordinances proposed by the BNP. The expanded boundaries would allow these landmarks to be identified as historic or culturally significant resources.

According to Kaji, there are 12 buildings considered to be landmarks, including the Peace Pagoda on the Japan Center Peace Plaza, the Nihonmachi Little Friends/YWCA building, the Ruth Asawa fountains and the Buchanan Street Mall.

The return of the Consulate General of Japan in San Francisco’s office to the Japan Center, for better mutual access for cultural exchange, was also suggested.


Improving Japantown’s Visibility

Diane Onizuka and Rose Hillson presented on the topic of Public Realm. The public realm chapter of the BNP initially pushed for better visibility of Japantown through publicly owned space such as streets, sidewalks and public parks.

The focus of the revision encourages cultural designs with increased public landscaping. Onizuka said she hoped that public spaces such as the Peace Plaza and sidewalks and streets will improve its landscape through more greenery, though the cost and compromise required for them is proving to be difficult.

Hillson noted that youth groups had requested a new park, but the proposal had been rejected due to its cost and impact to traffic. The initial plan required a lane on Webster Street to be shaved off to make room for the park. Karen Kai, who worked on Build Form and Land Use, added that the park was not cost effective, as the price tag would have been $7 million.

“With that money we could look more broadly to see what our youth need,” said Kai. “That money could rehabilitate a whole building for other use by youths.”


S.F.’s Japantown Faces a Unique Challenge

Paul Wermer, a Pacific Heights resident in San Francisco who works as a sustainability consultant, presented on transportation. While the plan proposes to promote a community based on mass-transit and pedestrian traffic instead of automobiles, Wermer said Japantown faces a unique challenge in being both a neighborhood commercial destination and a regional attraction.

The proximity to both Webster Street and Geary Boulevard place Japantown on major thoroughfares, which provides both access to and risks to pedestrians trying to cross the streets.

Wermer noted that Geary is especially problematic for pedestrian crossings. The proposed changes include slowing down the traffic on Geary and providing better crossing locations to reunite the two sides of street.

Wermer noted that, while Japantown has five Muni lines serving its neighborhood, the service is not convenient for some riders. Bus lines allow easy access for commuters going to and from downtown, but do not take into account the needs of families or shoppers who wish to visit Japantown, making them more likely to rely on automobiles.

“Sure you can get downtown if you get on the bus that’s packed like a sardine can,” said Wermer. “But it’s not quite as convenient for families with strollers.”

While Wermer said the community members offered “great ideas” to increase accessibility to Japantown, such as adding a cable car line from Van Ness Avenue to Fillmore Street, the issue of funding, and that the suggestion spans beyond BNP boundaries, have caused them to remain as speculations.

The projected growth of residential units brought up issues with parking. While the city no longer requires developers to provide a one to one ratio of parking spaces to housing units, Wermer said there needs to be careful study to accommodate any additional parking demand that developments in Japantown will generate for both residents and regional visitors.

Adding further concerns, the planned California Pacific Medical Center on Van Ness and Geary — which proposes a 15-story hospital with 555 beds, and a nine-story medical office building — may further complicate parking issues. While a total of 1,055 parking spaces are included in the proposal, Wermer, Hiroshi Fukuda and other BNP members expressed concerns about the parking demand that will spill over into the boundaries of the BNP. They did note, however, that the Center would also bring more shoppers to Japantown as well.


‘Should it Look Japanese?’

Addressing the cultural and aesthetic aspect of the presentation, Kai presented on Build Form, or the style of architecture for the neighborhood. The primary issues within Build Form is the limited funds available to developers to incorporate various aspects of landscaping and design, as well as the fundamental question of what is a respectful plan that will undo the negatives of redevelopment and prevent future scars.

Kai asked, “Should it ‘look Japanese?’”

The style of architecture remained a prominent question. Kai summarized the various architectural styles typical of Japantown throughout the years. In 1906, shops and building featured the typical Victorian style architecture prevalent in San Francisco. The Asian styles of buildings currently prevalent were a product of redevelopment, while the newest buildings feature modern aesthetics such as the condominiums on the corner of Post and Webster streets and the New People building, located at 1746 Post St.

According to Kai, the building height limit set at 50 feet is currently underutilized — while buildings may go up to five floors, most in the neighborhood do not go beyond three. She said, however, that new codes should implement building codes that force developers to have building setbacks on upper floors to keep the streets from gaining a “steep canyon” look.

Following Kai’s presentation, Hamaguchi facilitated a Q-and-A format session with the community. The discussion reflected the cultural and social needs of the community and meshed all three sections.

Inquires were made about plans for a park and greenery that had been canceled. Other community members brought up the possibility of partially closing Post Street to permanently connect the Peace Plaza with the Buchanan Street Mall.

While parks and green space, as well as pedestrian walkways on public space, were deemed difficult, Wermer, Kai, Onizuka and Hillson said they would like to work with both the city and private land owners to create a better space. The closure of Post Street, however, was deemed unlikely.

According to Wermer, the forthcoming Geary Bus Rapid Transit Line, an express bus line that would dedicate a lane of traffic going east and west along Geary for buses with boarding stops on the median, may help reunite the northern and southern portion of Geary Boulevard.

Kai said that she would like to work with private landowners of open surface parking lots located in the neighborhood for more park space. The proposed negotiations would allow property owners and locals to enjoy a dual use of these lots as possibly both park land and parking.

The issue of cost for using public space was presented. Community members cited the increasing cost of the public space for festivals. Several meeting attendees voiced their concerns over the price of using the public space, should a new public park be built within the BNP boundaries.


An Economically Viable Japantown

Following the first session, the second round of presentations discussed economic development.

Glynis Nakahara presented on Land Use, which covers laws, including zoning codes for buildings for various uses, such as commercial retail or residential apartments. The summary of proposed changes to the draft BNP leaves intact the requirement to keep the ground floor as a commercial space to promote pedestrian traffic.

Nakahara presented the primary change through the proposed Japantown Neighborhood Commercial District (NCD). The special district, by working with guidelines set by the Social Heritage District and the Cultural Heritage Committee, would dictate density and uses for the neighborhood, according to the summary of proposed changes. The proposed section covers the three Japan Center malls, the mixed use buildings on the north side of Post Street between Webster and Laguna and up Buchanan Street to Hotel Tomo.

Outside of the commercial uses, Nakahara would like to attract more families into the area as well as younger and older residents. The current plan revision dictates 40 percent of units in a building with six units or more must be two bedroom units.

Hillson raised the issue of eliminating zoning density limits for residential units in the proposed Neighborhood Commercial District (NCD), asking community members to provide input, especially on thoughts such as impacts on parking.

Paul Lord of the city’s Planning Department told the Nichi Bei Weekly that the city is generally doing away with density requirements. “All analyses say we should do away with (density limits).” He said that, while he does not see this as a major issue, he is willing to go back to zoning density limits if the community wishes, though such “defies logic.” He explained the revised limits would be similar to unit sizes allowed for those without density limits.

Hillson and Fukuda told the Nichi Bei Weekly that an issue still exists, in that the increased density raises property values, possibly making the Community Land Trust harder to form in areas covered by the NCD.

For the Community Economic Development portion of the meeting, Hamaguchi described the plans to retain existing business, recruit culturally appropriate businesses and strengthen economic ties. He aims to find and access funds, such as hotel taxes or other fees to remain in Japantown, that may otherwise leave the neighborhood to be spent at other locales, such as Union Square.

Fukuda said that an implementing organization will need to be formed to help dictate discussions on conditional use businesses such as formula retail.

He said the organization could come from an existing group, but there is no solidified entity as of yet. Fukuda hoped that the new organization help to facilitate better promotion for tourism, as well as attracting locals and Japanese nationals living in the U.S.

Other ideas included Japanese formula retail stores such as Uniqlo, art galleries or some form of attraction that brings people of all ages to gather, such as the now closed Japantown Bowl.

Overall, the community was receptive of the conditional use of formula retail. The college students, on the other hand, hoped to see more attractions that catered to younger crowds, such as retail and eateries that serve otaku groups. One student suggested a “love hotel,” a type of hotel in Japan used for short stays by couples.

Preserving Community Nonprofits

Fukuda would like the plans to find a way to retain nonprofit services, including the Nichi Bei Foundation, which publishes the last English-language Japanese American newspaper in San Francisco, the Nichi Bei Weekly.

Hamaguchi spoke about the possible Community Land Trust (CLT), a nonprofit entity aimed at purchasing and maintaining properties to provide lower rents to commercial properties in Japantown. He stressed that the CLT is only one of the options the plan could pursue, and said a community development corporation was also possible.

The CLT — which was studied by Burlington Associates on a grant from the Ford Foundation and the City of San Francisco — could allow the Japantown community to purchase key properties and manage them under a nonprofit entity. The subsidies as a nonprofit would allow businesses or nonprofit groups housed in those properties lower rents.

Ben Pease, a San Francisco-based historian who created the Japantown Atlas, a Website documenting 24 Japanese American communities as they appeared in 1940, commented, “San Jose’s Japantown merchants survived better due to lower rents.” Pease argued that lower rents would help retain smaller family business. “The best solution could be to just buy the malls.”


Threat to Businesses

Fukuda and Hamaguchi finished the presentation with proposed plans for the Japan Center. The Japan Center, which the BNP aims to renovate without closing the city garage beneath it, poses several challenges. While the BNP would like to involve the city in any future projects with the malls, Hamaguchi and Fukuda both stressed the key issue remained that any major remodeling or construction will threaten existing businesses.

The plan proposes to seek out the impacts for the entire neighborhood to ensure that Japantown businesses are not negatively affected by construction. The plan includes a possible addition of two floors on top of the existing structures.

Lord, who helped oversee the BNP committees as an advisor from the city, added that there is a potential for urban agriculture on the Japan Center’s roofs. The sustainable greening would not cause as much of an impact as a public park on the roof, he cited.

Any changes to the Center, however, are ultimately up to the property owners.

Sugaya closed the meeting and encouraged the community to submit any further feedback to the Planning Department Website (’page=1692). He stressed that the BNP should crystallize into something the Japantown community really wants by not taking shortcuts, such as drafting plans that consciously avoid triggering an Environmental Impact Report.

“You should … look at what you want to do first,” he said. “If it triggers the need for an environmental report, we’ll take a year to study it carefully to do it. We just need to know what we really need first.”

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