S.F. departments, Board of Supervisors approve JCHESS for Japantown

The San Francisco Board of Supervisors endorsed the Japantown Cultural Heritage and Economic Sustainability Strategy at its weekly meeting Oct. 1. The resolution of endorsement officially endorses the JCHESS as city policy as a guiding document for San Francisco’s Japantown.

The endorsement followed the city Planning Department’s Historic Preservation Commission and Planning Commission both unanimously endorsing the document on Sept. 18 and 19, respectively.

Japantown community members voiced their support for the JCHESS at the public meetings, which were held at City Hall.

A Roadmap to the Future
Japantown Task Force Executive Director Bob Hamaguchi, who helped spearhead the community outreach to gather opinions from Japantown’s stakeholders, described the effort it took to put the document together. He called the JCHESS the third iteration of a community plan, which includes the Better Neighborhood Plan that was first conceived in 2007.

“These letters represent a great cross section of the community stakeholders, including businesses, property owners, resident associations, community based organizations, religious organizations and neighborhood resident groups,” he told the Historic Preservation Commission Sept. 18. Twenty-four letters of support were presented to the city, asking it to adopt the JCHESS as policy.

After 13 years of community discussions, while those involved in process have changed, “the visions and goals of the community are largely unchanged,” Hamaguchi said.

Steve Wertheim, who presented the document to the Historic Preservation Commission and Planning Commission reiterated what the JCHESS entails.

“This is the first document in San Francisco to focus specifically on how to preserve and promote a neighborhood’s cultural heritage,” he said. The document aims to maintain a thriving community for Nikkei in San Francisco, and is a collaboration among the Japantown community, the Planning Department and the city’s Office of Economic Workforce Development, which runs the mayor’s Invest in Neighborhoods initiative.

The JCHESS includes the Japantown community’s concerns with retaining its businesses and cultural resources. It also provides 19 recommendations to address those identified concerns, Wertheim, the city planner in charge of the JCHESS at the Planning Department, said. The recommendations include the use of existing city programs and legislation, along with new initiatives the community could implement and how the city and community could work together to maintain economic and cultural vibrancy.

Wertheim said the JCHESS aims to also define cultural heritage as “those elements, both tangible and intangible, that help define the beliefs, customs and practices of a particular community. These elements are rooted in the community’s history and/or are important in maintaining the continuing cultural identity of the community.”

Support for the JCHESS
Many community members spoke out in favor of the JCHESS throughout the three meetings.

Arnold Townsend, a member of the Organizing Committee and an African American resident of the Fillmore District, stressed the importance of the JCHESS being adopted as city policy in both Planning Department meetings. “These same discussions were held in Fillmore, but the problem was, they were just suggestions and they were all completely ignored,” he told the Planning Commission. Townsend said the city’s official commitment to the JCHESS would prevent Japantown community members from being slighted in the future.

Yoshiro Tasaka, an employee of the Consulate General of Japan in San Francisco, spoke as a community member citing the importance of maintaining cultural heritage in Japantown. “Young Japanese like me don’t really know about Japanese culture,” he told the Board of Supervisors. In the five years he has spent in San Francisco, Tasaka said he has learned about Japanese traditions, including mochi pounding in the new year and Obon dances in the summer through the Nikkei community in the city.

Ryan Kimura, programs director for the Japanese Cultural and Community Center of Northern California, told the Board of Supervisors he grew up in Japantown. “I was dancing around the taiko drums during the Cherry Blossom Festival, now I play those drums and I’m the program director at the JCCCNC,” he said. Kimura said the JCHESS has the “power” to bring the community together, is “awesome” in its focus on preserving both the physical elements of Japantown, and the intangible resources, such as the festival and the culture classes offered at the JCCCNC. He added that it is a “beginning” for the implementation of recommendations made in the JCHESS.

Jon Osaki, the executive director of the Japanese Community Youth Council, said he wanted to be assured the city supports Japantown by adopting the JCHESS as city policy. “I want you to send a strong message that Japantown is a priority,” he told the Board of Supervisors.

Many community members and city officials commended the work done by Hamaguchi and Wertheim, along with other Organizing Committee members and Planning Department staff. Community members also thanked John Rahaim, director of the Planning Department, for his patience in ensuring that the JCHESS reflects what the community really wants, after 13 years of debate.

Adoption by the Historic Preservation Commission
The Historic Preservation Commission voted unanimously to endorse the Historic Context Statement, drafted in May 2011, and the JCHESS during its Sept. 18 meeting. The Historic Context Statement, written by Donna Graves and Page and Turnbull Inc., a consulting firm that helped to compile the cultural heritage inventory included in the JCHESS, provides context as to why a document is needed to help protect and guide San Francisco’s Japantown.

Commissioner Diane Matsuda, while setting in motion the approval for the document, requested that it be prefaced with further developments that culminated in the creation of the JCHESS since the document’s last revision in 2011.

The approval for JCHESS, however, was met with some debate. Days before the Planning Department’s hearings for the JCHESS, Paul Osaki, Organizing Committee member and executive director of the JCCCNC, issued his own revisions to the Historic Preservation Commission’s resolution of endorsement. Wertheim said most of Osaki’s edits were similar to the original resolution, but also added two buildings, the Kinmon Gakuen Institute, and the historic Japanese YWCA building (present-day Nihonmachi Little Friends), into the commission’s landmark work program. The original resolution only included the Peace Plaza as a candidate for potential landmark designation.

Karen Kai, Organizing Committee member, addressed both commissions during their JCHESS hearings, and stressed that the commissions adopt the resolutions provided to them by Wertheim and the Planning Department, rather than adopt the amended versions offered by Osaki.

Matsuda acknowledged the concerns, but hesitated to postpone the endorsement to allow the community to discuss the amendments further. Other commissioners agreed. Commissioner Aaron Jon Hyland suggested adopting the resolution as received from the Planning Department, but elected to amend the clause that added the Peace Plaza to the landmark work program to also include the two suggested buildings, saying, “it’s not initiating the landmark designation process for them, but starting to encourage them to work with us if they do.”

Kai stated earlier that, while both suggested buildings deserve landmark designation, the actual stakeholders of the two buildings should initiate the process on their own terms.

Adoption by the Planning Commission
The Planning Commission was enthusiastic for the JCHESS to serve as a guiding document for Japantown, as well as a potential source of guidance for other San Francisco neighborhoods.

Commissioner Cindy Wu said she supports the JCHESS, which enables Japantown to determine what it wants as a neighborhood. Commissioner Gwyneth Borden agreed that the JCHESS is a “great vision for the future,” but expressed disappointment that the strategy did not involve 3D Investments, which owns and operates a majority of the Japan Center Malls.

Commissioner Rich Hillis agreed that 3D has “a huge amount to gain in getting engaged,” and called for the property owners to engage the community or sell it to someone who will. Hillis also said the city-owned parking garage underneath the malls and the Peace Plaza is a huge asset for the neighborhood and the city. “I think the MTA’s gotta get involved and view that garage as more than just a revenue producer, but … as an assets we can use to implement this plan and preserve Japantown.”

Commissioner Bill Sugaya called the JCHESS the “most comprehensive approach we have to date.” Sugaya motioned to adopt the JCHESS, but also amend the resolution for the Planning Commission to recognize the Historic Preservation Commission’s own endorsement from the
day before to “recognize their work that is not reflected in the Planning Commission meeting.”

The amendment, however, was brought under debate with certain community members raising their concerns about the Historic Preservation Commission’s amendment to add the Kinmon Gakuen and Japanese YWCA to its landmark designation work program.

Karen Kai told the Planning Commission: “What happened there greatly disrespected the process you asked us to have. It is so important going forward that the community can trust one another, know that we are working together.” While she said the Historic Preservation Commission handled the amendments “gracefully,” she encouraged the Planning Commission to disregard their adoption. “There may be parts of the content we may not dispute, but the process is wrong.”

Hamaguchi also said the two buildings were “no doubt historic resources,” but stood by the original resolutions submitted to the Planning Commission, stating that the Organizing Committee had secured letters of support from the community based on the unrevised resolution and had not had the time to return to them.

Sugaya rescinded his amendment while Hillis proposed a second amendment reading that the Historic Preservation Commission should “review and implement those portions of JCHESS under their purview.”

The planning commission, after adopting the JCHESS, initiated the process to create the Japantown Neighborhood Commercial District, which is one of the recommendations made by the JCHESS. The Japantown NCD, according to Wertheim, will combine the commercial zoning laws north of Post Street and the properties between Post Street and Geary Boulevard to create a custom set of zoning laws that reflect the community’s wishes for development. Sugaya introduced two amendments to the NCD. He first proposed zoning changes to reduce maximum parking spaces for each residential unit from 0.75 to 0.5 with a maximum conditional use of one space per unit. He then asked to eliminate density calculations, like in the Market and Octavia Area Plan. If adopted, any number of residential units can be constructed within a building so long as it conforms to other height, bulk and scale limits.

The amendments have yet to be considered, and the Planning Commission said it would reconvene to consider the zoning law changes and amendments at another Planning Commission meeting taking place on or after Oct. 17.
Rahaim also suggested to the Planning Commission that the community should discuss the changes offered by Sugaya before approving any amendments.

Board of Supervisors’ Approval
Supervisor London Breed, who represents Japantown, introduced the resolution for endorsement to the Board of Supervisors on Sept. 24, calling the JCHESS an expansion plan to preserve and support Japantown. She said Oct. 1 the document would succeed because of the community support behind its creation.

“The commitment and support of the Japantown community shown not only today, but at Planning Commission and the Historic Preservation Commission last month, and throughout the last ten years, is truly inspiring.”

Supervisor Eric Mar reiterated the community’s drive to produce the JCHESS. “I know it’s been a rocky road through the redevelopment era and many of the years afterward as well,” he said. “I give so much props to the people who have been at this for decades and to young leaders like Ryan (Kimura) and others.”

The resolution was adopted without committee reference, with Supervisors Mar, David Chiu, David Campos and Malia Cohen signing on as co-sponsors to Breed.

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