S.F. J-Town sustainability strategy presented to commissions

San Francisco Japantown members and stakeholders gave informational presentations on the Japantown Cultural Heritage and Economic Sustainability Strategy in July to the San Francisco Planning Department. The two presentations were given to the Historic Preservation Commission and the Planning Commission on July 17 and 18.

The meetings were designed to present a final draft of the strategy to the city’s planning department commissions for review prior to a bid for endorsement, which is tentatively planned for September.

Presenting the JCHESS
Steve Wertheim, Planning Department planner, along with Bob Hamaguchi of the Japantown Organizing Committee, presented the JCHESS to both commissions. The plan, which has been in development since the 1990s, according to Hamaguchi, is a document that outlines how the San Francisco Japantown community and the city could work together to maintain the ethnic enclave’s viability as a center of Nikkei culture and heritage, as well as maintain its economic viability.

The document states that it is the first document of its kind to focus on the preservation and promotion of a neighborhood’s cultural heritage rather than serve as a plan for future development. The document’s executive summary states that the JCHESS envisions that “Japantown will thrive as a culturally rich, authentic, and economically vibrant neighborhood, which will serve as the cultural heart of the Japanese and Japanese American communities for generations to come.”

Wertheim shared some of the community concerns and potential solutions that are listed in the JCHESS.

The recommendations include the creation of a Community Development Corporation, a Japantown Community Land Trust, creating a community benefits district, finding new sources of funding from the Japan Center Garage or the San Francisco Grants for the Arts program, the use of the mayor’s Invest in Neighborhoods Initiative, a creation of a cultural tourism guide through SFTravel (a travel bureau), the creation of a neighborhood commercial district and improving the Peace Plaza and the Buchanan Street Mall to increase accessibility.

The strategy includes an inventory of historic and important buildings and structures, organizations and institutions, businesses and cultural activities and events that take place in the neighborhood. Wertheim said a list of 322 entries was compiled through community input and analysis by both the city and consultants Page & Turnbull.

Comments from the Historic Preservation Commission
Historic Preservation Commission Commissioner Diane Matsuda recused herself from the commission during the July 17 meeting due to a conflict of interest, but joined the gallery as a community member. Several community members spoke at the meeting, asking the commission for its support.

“When we started this, it was a typical development forum,” said Karen Kai, organizing committee member. “As we worked on this, people said, ‘Wait a minute, we might lose our social, cultural fabric here.’” Kai thanked the Planning Department for their support in creating the JCHESS, specifically Paul Lord, a city planner who was instrumental in shifting the 2009 draft Better Neighborhood Plan into the JCHESS.

The Historic Preservation Commission voiced their support for the document, but also expressed their concerns. Commissioner Jonathan Pearlman spoke about the retention of family businesses in Japantown. “I think there is a hard road when the youth of a community isn’t coming along with the middle age and elders of a community. Are there programs in the city that can support these businesses?” he asked.

“It is, in some ways, some of the most honest reports that I have seen, because you focused on some of the central problems right at the beginning,” said Commissioner Richard Johns. He said the plan grapples with Japantown’s identity, whether as a cultural center for Japanese Americans or Japanese nationals and the shifting demographics of the neighborhood’s residents. “There has to be a renewed focus … on what could really work of all your recommendations. So many of them you honestly said, ‘we don’t have the money, we don’t have the neighborhood involvement for this.’”

He also acknowledged some of the contradictions the plan has regarding gentrification and economic viability. “You keep saying you don’t want gentrification, but what you say … is ‘we need a economically vibrant community,’ and that is very difficult to split from gentrification,” he said.

Commissioner Aaron Jon Hyland commended the document, saying it indicates the “maturation of preservation” for its emphasis on cultural identity. “It’s a well put-together document, it’s comprehensive and maybe a bit more honest and over-optimistic, but very, very well done.”

Discussions at the Planning Commission
During the Planning Commission meeting, aside from Wertheim and Hamaguchi, Diana Ponce De Leon of the City’s Office of Economic and Workforce Development spoke regarding the Invest in Neighborhoods program, which the JCHESS could take advantage of, by implementing some suggested tools for preservation and business retention. Ponce De Leon said the program leverages existing city programs to create a customized plan for neighborhoods.

Hiroshi Fukuda, organizing committee member and Japanese American Religious Federation representative, commented on the changes the JCHESS has implemented since the 2009 BNP. He also thanked Lord for helping to change the document’s focus.
“The original BNP was (focused on) development; I thought this was the end of Japantown,” Fukuda said. The BNP suggested extensive redevelopment of the Japan Center Malls and the city garage that’s located underneath it, which opponents, including Fukuda, believed would shutter many of the current businesses located in the neighborhood.

Arnold Townsend, a Fillmore Street resident and organizing committee member, spoke about Nikkei and African Americans’ history in the neighborhood. “I’m really impressed how the (Planning Department) staff has taken a lot of direction from the community,” he said. “They recognized and honored the relationship between the Japanese American and African American community.” Townsend said, prior to redevelopment in the 1960s, Japanese Americans and African American businesses stood side-by-side in the neighborhood.

Tim Colen of the San Francisco Housing Action Coalition cited challenges in securing funding for the improvements that are suggested in the strategy. “In listening to the presentation today, one can’t help but be struck by the vast difference between what the desires are and the improvements needed in Japantown.” Colen said that while the city offers programs, he does not feel they will provide the level of support that’s needed to make the necessary improvements. He went on to say the removal of the changes to height and density limits, a key reason why the BNP failed to garner community support, would attract investors to Japantown.

Kenneth Kaji of the organizing committee talked about cultural sustainability. “Culture is sort of like aesthetics. Some people might think a particular cultural phenomenon is great, and the reaction from another person might be very bad. It’s very subjective, but how do you go about sustaining cultural viability in a community? … I think the planning staff working with the community has begun the process of broadening the observation of identity and meaning of what culture is.”

Cindy Wu, commission vice president, spoke in support of keeping development out of the JCHESS. “How can we think about the people and the youth? I think we have a lot of things that help preserve buildings, but how can we preserve the people and youth,” she asked. “I think in this example, the community wants to preserve it by keeping development out. … This way, the community has more control on what happens and it’s not some owner in L.A., or wherever they end up being, this way you can control the changes moving forward.”

Wu also said starting a community development corporation would be a major undertaking and advised that existing organizations might be able to incubate or fiscally sponsor such an endeavor.

While Planning Commissioner Bill Sugaya noted that the commission is not used to seeing a document like the JCHESS, he stressed its importance. “The idea of social and cultural heritage evolved out of the Western SOMA plan, first developed out of the Filipino community and LGBT community. The Japantown folks used that to produce the JCHESS, … the issues are not just of the Japanese American community alone,” Sugaya said. “This is an extremely important model or direction for these other groups to address their cultural and social heritage issues.”

Sugaya, however, also addressed several problems. “The commission will have problems on how to use the document in our own decision-making process,” he said. Sugaya said the resolution to support the document, come September, should address how the city will use the document in their decision-making process. “That is where the Commission can say ‘we don’t just like this idea,’ … Craft (the resolution) so, as a planning commission, we can really take this document to heart when we make land use decisions.”

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