Nihonmachi Little Friends launches $3.5 mil. capital campaign for new building

BUILDING TOWARD THE FUTURE — Nihonmachi Little Friends has launched a capital campaign to establish a new building on the lot between its 1830 Sutter St. location (right) and the Japanese Cultural and Community Center of Northern California (left). photo by  Tomo Hirai/ Nichi Bei Weekly

BUILDING TOWARD THE FUTURE — Nihonmachi Little Friends has launched a capital campaign to establish a new building on the lot between its 1830 Sutter St. location (right) and the Japanese Cultural and Community Center of Northern California (left). photo by Tomo Hirai/Nichi Bei Weekly

Nihonmachi Little Friends announced its plans to build an addition to its current location at 1830 Sutter St. in San Francisco’s Japantown. The community-based multicultural childcare organization made the announcement during its annual Sushi Social fundraiser, which was held Nov. 16, 2012.

NLF has called the project the “Plant A Seed Campaign,” which aims to raise $3.5 million by 2015.

The project follows NLF’s first capital campaign to raise $2.2 million to purchase the Julia Morgan-designed YWCA building and to make renovations. That campaign ended in 2009.

Cathy Inamasu, NLF’s executive director, said the addition will help to prepare the preschool for growth and to update its facilities.

The new building will give the organization a permanent home for the preschool children currently attending NLF at the Kinmon Gakuen building at 2031 Bush St.

“The 36 preschooler Sutter Street site is maxed out,” Inamasu said. “We’ve been at Kinmon Gakuen, which can take 44 children, for 35 years. It’s going to need some renovations, but it’s hard to do when we’re not the owners.”

Inamasu said she wanted to take the adjoining plot NLF owns on 1830 Sutter St. and build a new building for 56 children.

The new building, which will be the same height as the former Japanese YWCA building, will become the new main entryway for the preschool. Additionally, it will connect the old building, without making any drastic changes to the old building. The new addition also makes the former YWCA building compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act.

“There is no accessibility on the second floor,” said Inamasu. “In our current building, we do not have enough space for an elevator.”

The new building will also feature a 75-square-foot playground as well as a rooftop garden. “The children will have to go onto the playground in shifts since there isn’t enough space for them to be up there all at once,” Inamasu added.

The Oakland, Calif.-based HKIT Architects will design the building. Inamasu said NLF had sent out a notice for bidding in January of 2012 and received “10 very highly qualified proposals,” which NLF distilled down to the East Bay firm.

According to Rod Henmi, director of design at HKIT, the firm is staffed by 35 people and is located in downtown Oakland. The firm specializes in designing schools and housing.

Henmi said there were two main challenges to building the new addition on Sutter Street: the size of the plot and NLF’s original building.

“It is a very tight space and next door you have the Julia Morgan-designed building,” said Henmi. “We wanted to be highly respectful of the Morgan building.”

While the layout of the building is set, the exterior design has yet to be approved. “We are just starting to meet with the city planning department, so none of our exterior designs are available for public view at this time,” Henmi said.

With the design forthcoming, funding remains an issue. While the previous capital campaign succeeded over the course of a decade, NLF needs to raise the funds in less than three years.

“Once we break ground, we don’t want to stop,” Inamasu said. NLF plans to construct the addition without reducing their services at the former YWCA building, and finish by the fall of 2015.

“Luckily, we can get a loan from the bank. We don’t have a mortgage, so we can do that,” she added. The loan will go toward the $3.5 million, but Inamasu did not elaborate on the loan’s exact figure.

Inamasu said the new capital campaign will employ many of the first campaign’s members, including Karen Kai, former NLF board member, and Makiko Kambayashi, the capital campaign coordinator.

Kambayashi, as the capital campaign coordinator, will work with Inamasu, NLF’s board members and parents to coordinate all aspects of the fundraising. She has been with the organization since 2004, initially to head up its original capital campaign.

“We do have the capacity to raise the funds,” Kambayashi said. “We have the trust from the community that we are capable, so we plan to start from the local community and our previous donors.”

The capital campaign aims to start its fundraising by establishing a $100,000 challenge fund through the end of January, with NLF board members and various parents matching each donation, dollar for dollar.

Kambayashi said she wanted to build new relations with corporate sponsors, as well as ask individual donors for their support.

“We have to do everything we can,” she said.

NLF was established in 1975 and first operated out of the Buddhist Church of San Francisco. It later moved to Kinmon Gakuen when it received state funding for its programs. The organization has been teaching out of the 1830 Sutter St. building since 1985, according to Inamasu, and also runs an after-school program for school aged children at Christ United Presbyterian Church in San Francisco’s Japantown.

Kai, who joined the NLF board when her son was a student there, helped secure the Sutter Street building when it was to be sold by the YWCA in 1996. She is also a member of the capital campaign committee.

While Kai agrees that meeting the $3.5 million goal will be a challenge, she stressed “the importance of NLF, not only as an educational organization, but as an important contributor to the ongoing vitality of Japantown.”

Inamasu agreed, and said that the new building is vital for the future of Japantown. “It’s important to have children and families to keep coming to Japantown,” she said. “We want to support Japantown, it’s why we really didn’t want to leave (when the YWCA tried to sell the building). … As future global citizens, it is important to have that Japanese culture, language and heritage infused into them at a young age.”

The NLF building was once a YWCA, which Issei women built in Japantown. Due to the Alien Land Law that prevented Asian Americans from owning land, the building, designed by California’s first licensed woman architect, Julia Morgan, was held in trust by the YWCA.

Inamasu said the YWCA initially put the building up for sale in 1996, but the Japantown community could not afford the asking price. Kai, who worked on the legal case against the YWCA, said an investigation by a volunteer historian at Kimochi Inc., Al Gordon, revealed “the property was purchased with community funds and was being held ‘in trust’ for the Japanese YWCA.”

Kai said that the trust, however, technically could not be enforced, as the Japanese YWCA had been disbanded after World War II. The Soko Bukai, representing members of the local Japanese Christian churches, asked if they could be the plaintiff in a lawsuit, arguing that the Japanese YWCA members came from their congregations.

The case was about to proceed to court until, in 2002, it was settled out of court, according to Inamasu.

“The Soko Bukai wanted to be certain that NLF would be able to remain in the building,” Kai said. “Even though NLF had never owned a building before, the Soko Bukai had a great deal of confidence in NLF … NLF was also willing to enter into an agreement with the Soko Bukai to act as the building’s steward, not just its owner, and to assure that its history was preserved and integrity maintained for future generations.”

Kambayashi, a Shin-Issei from Shiga prefecture, said she initially took the campaign coordinator position as a way to get involved in the community. “The Issei women built the community to allow people such as me to be able to come and live without discrimination,” she said. “Nihonmachi has a duty to maintain the community … NLF has a big role in the future of the Japanese American community.”

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