JCHESS nears presentation to board, suggests preservation, promotion of J-Town through city

The San Francisco Japantown Organizing Committee met June 19 to discuss the Japantown Cultural Heritage and Economic Sustainability Strategy (JCHESS) draft, to receive information about the Invest in Neighborhoods initiative, social heritage businesses, the definition of formula retail and a proposed high-rise at 1481 Post St.

Diana Ponce De Leon, project manager for the initiative and Japantown’s liaison to the program, suggested plans for the ethnic enclave based on findings contained in the JCHESS draft and other information she had gathered from the community. Mayor Ed Lee created the initiative to create customized plans for San Francisco neighborhoods to revitalize and strengthen neighborhood commercial districts. Japantown is one of 25 districts being considered for the initiative, which includes suggestions for improvements for the Peace Plaza and Buchanan Mall, streetscape enhancements, marketing strategies and neighborhood branding as a regional destination, strategies on improving visitors’ experiences, attracting and retaining culturally relevant businesses and promoting safety. The program includes suggestions for solutions broken down into short-term and long-term goals.

“The Invest in Neighborhoods program is basically a tool you all have access to implement some of the JCHESS proposals or address areas of concern,” said Ponce De Leon. “This is meant to be a fluid plan that will be changed based on your feedback and on resources and feasibility.” Funding in the short term would not be a major issue, said Ponce De Leon, because it would pull from preexisting resources, while more expensive projects would be discussed in-depth through the program as a long-term goal. The document is still in its earliest stages and is not yet available for public review.

Shelley Caltagirone presented on the “Community Summit: Sustaining San Francisco’s Living History” presented by the San Francisco Architectural Heritage Society June 15. The citywide meeting included representatives from Chinatown, Bay View, SOMA and other neighborhoods. Caltagirone reported that the various neighborhoods agreed about their priorities. “Heritage businesses are important to the economy and character of the neighborhood,” she said. “The threats also seem to be the same across the board.”

The summit also introduced and discussed a potential policy that would freeze property taxes for heritage businesses throughout the city.

Karen Kai, a member of the Organizing Committee who attended the summit noted the concerns that Japantown shares with other San Francisco communities. “Virtually every community had the same issues,” she said. “It was gentrification and real estate speculation, it’s driving out resident population, and that leads to loss of heritage businesses, loss of more residents and cultural institutions, and that the tools that exist now are too expensive or you have to invent them for yourself.”

The city planning department’s Steve Wertheim said the JCHESS will likely be finalized by end of June. The document has been vetted by the community and shaped through more than a decade of planning with community members. The strategy does not assume significant development of Japantown and does not suggest changing the building height or density limits, as opposed to the 2009 Better Neighborhood Plan draft.

Bob Hamaguchi of the Organizing Committee asked Wertheim to frame the presentation of the JCHESS on July 17 and 18, to the Historic Preservation Commission and Planning Commission respectively, as an informational presentation, rather than a request for approval.
Wertheim said the Planning Department also secured exemption from the California Environment Quality Act, which would have required the JCHESS to file an environmental impact report.

“If this thing had teeth, this would have to go through CEQA” said Wertheim. The JCHESS avoids having to create an environmental impact report for CEQA by not forcing any plan of action since it is considered a “strategy.”

Hamaguchi said he would like to take the JCHESS, once completed, to various organizations to gain letters of support to strengthen the document prior to approval. Wertheim said the JCHESS will likely be adopted in August or September of this year.

Organizing Committee member Paul Wermer presented on the expansion of the definition of formula retail, or chain stores, in San Francisco. He said the city has become a destination for expanding international or well-known brands. Currently, certain neighborhoods, including the Japantown Special Use District and its neighbor, the Upper Fillmore Street Neighborhood Commercial District, require a conditional use permit for formula retail stores. The city identifies stores with 11 or more locations in the United States with similar branding to be considered formula retail. The definition, however, does not include stores whose parent companies are formula retail, but operating under a different name, such as Gap’s Athleta, nor does it include stores opened by popular brands that have previously not held its own brick and mortar stores — including cosmetic stores commonly found in department stores such as NARs — or internationally known chains that have yet to hold 11 or more stores in the U.S., such as Aesop from Australia.

Wermer said Supervisors Mark Farrell and London Breed have been working on legislation addressing an expansion of the definition of formula retail for individual neighborhoods in San Francisco, primarily Fillmore Street for Farrell and Hayes Valley for Breed, but so far does not include Japantown. Wermer said the proposed legislation does not regulate Internet retailers such as Amazon from opening physical stores, either.

The last item discussed was a potential 36-story condo at 1481 Post St. In discussing if the Organizing Committee should take a stance, Hamaguchi asked, “What’s in it for us?”

Hamaguchi said, the city is willing to mediate a deal with the condo’s developers and the community, but the Japantown community must come together to work out a compromise, though that option precludes the demands of those who do not want the building at all. The Organizing Committee did not take a stance on the condo’s development at the meeting.

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