San Francisco’s Japantown plans for preservation

San Francisco’s Japantown experienced several notable changes in 2017 and aims to implement and secure resources for the continuity of one of the nation’s last three historical Japantowns. As the ethnic enclave moves forward into 2018, several organizations based in the neighborhood must seriously consider their mission and focus for the coming years.

New Organization on the Block

PRIORITIES FOR JAPANTOWN — The Peace Pagoda and Peace Plaza is a focal point for San Francisco’s Japantown and a focal point for the Japantown Task Force’s next major project to remediate the plaza. The plaza is also within the newly formed Japantown Community Benefit District (right). graphic by Kristin Lowell Inc.

Perhaps one of the biggest changes Japantown enacted in 2017 was the implementation of the Japantown Community Benefit District. The assessment was made to the enclave’s commercial center’s properties to implement additional services administered by an independent nonprofit community benefit district organization. The Japantown Task Force, in collaboration with the San Francisco Mayor’s Office of Economic and Workforce Development, helped campaign and pass the ballot for the additional assessment totaling just under $400,000 a year for the next 10 years to property owners located within the district.

David Ishida, newly elected president and at-large member of the inaugural board, said his current focus is on setting up the organization, which voted to incorporate July 25, 2017, and finding its executive director. He said the implementation of services outlined in the organization’s management plan would begin once the organization is set up and the job announcement for its executive director is created.

The community benefit district outlines three major priorities the organization should focus on. According to a survey of property owners conducted Nov. 8 through Dec. 4, maintenance was the biggest concern, followed by security and marketing. In addition, the CBD survey targeted property owners who either voted against or did not vote in the special ballot measure held July 25.

Sixty-seven percent of those surveyed said there was a “lack of communication prior to formation,” according to the district’s report. Of the 63 parcels of property within the district, just 17 voted in favor of the formation, while 24 parcels voted against and 26 parcels did not vote. The ballots were weighted proportionally to how much each property owner would be assessed.

With the organization heading toward implementation, however, many surveyed said they were looking for consistent follow-ups from the implementation organization and expected to see improvements of the local environment. Ishida anticipates he will earn the trust of the community through results. “If we do our job, people will see that,” he said in an interview with the Nichi Bei Weekly.

Preventing Redundancy
The additional assessment and implementation body means existing organizations must examine how the new body will affect their current role within Japantown. While Ishida outlines that the benefit district has a “clear and straightforward” mission, collaboration with other community organizations is required.

“The right hand needs to know what the left hand is doing,” Sandy Mori, the newly installed board president of the Japantown Task Force, said in an interview with the Nichi Bei Weekly. While the task force had helped organize the district, the two organizations are formally separate entities.

Similarly, the Japantown Merchants Association must its evaluate next steps, depending on how the benefit district proceeds. “Since the CBD passed, there’s some merchants … stating they’ll probably drop out of the Merchants Association because they will now be assessed this new assessment and they probably cannot afford to be on the merchants association,” Richard Hashimoto, president of the merchants association, said. “And I guess there is some duplication of the services being offered with the CBD and the merchants association as far as marketing and promoting the community, so I see that.”

According to Hashimoto, the merchants association currently focuses on providing promotion of the neighborhood’s businesses through the placement of advertisements as well as helping fund promotional events and festivals such as the holiday lighting of the Peace Pagoda and Plaza and the Buchanan Mall.

Hashimoto said he would have to give serious thought as to whether the association can continue, depending on who pulls out of the merchants organization, which has seen a gradual decline over the past decade. Of the 300 or so businesses within the ethnic enclave, about 80 businesses are members, down from 100 members eight years ago. Hashimoto noted the decline in membership was due to a lack of interest from newer merchants coming to the ethnic enclave.

“We have merchants who really don’t want to be in the merchants association, because they feel that, for one thing they just started business. We understand there is the financial difficulty,” Hashimoto said. “But then, they feel that they benefit from our events and advertisements, so why do they need to join the merchants association?”