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?”

Looking for Leaders
In addition to preventing redundancy, both the Japantown Task Force and the Japantown Community Benefit District must find new executive directors moving into 2018. While the benefit district must find its inaugural director, the task force lost Bob Hamaguchi, its former director, to cancer shortly after the benefit district was realized. Both organizations are developing a job description to seeking applicants.

Ishida said his organization will develop a job description based on information from other community benefit districts. “Once we have a sample of that, we’re gonna compare that to our management plan and develop the criteria of what we’ll be looking for and what has to be accomplished,” Ishida said.

For the task force, Mori said they will seek someone who is not only able to serve as their administrator, but is also capable of securing resources for Japantown through the city.

Plaza Remediation
Starting last year, the task force began meeting in an ad hoc committee to discuss plans for the potential remediation of the Japan Center’s Peace Plaza and Peace Pagoda. The plaza and pagoda, which celebrates its 50th anniversary March 28, is in need of major repairs owed to existing waterproofing issues between the plaza and the city-owned parking garage located underneath, along with a faulty remodeling that worsened problems in 2000 and compromised the plaza’s historic integrity.

The project, estimated to potentially cost somewhere around $24 million, is the task force’s next major issue to tackle after helping to implement the benefit district over the past year, according to Mori.

“There’s much to do. It all has to do with how much funds we can get to do all this,” Mori said. The task force is looking to add the project to a major general Recreation and Park Department bond to be voted on in 2019.

The project, however, has caused some controversy within the Japantown community, as the task force has requested the city delay the designation of the Peace Plaza as a landmark while organization members develop a plan for what they would like to see in the remediation project. The Historic Preservation Commission and the San Francisco Planning Department staff advised the landmark designation for the plaza and pagoda be done together following prior work done with the task force’s Cultural Heritage Committee.

Looking to the Future
Whether it is the merchants association, the task force or the newly formed community benefit district, all organizations are looking toward the continued relevancy of San Francisco’s Japantown.

“Our mission and purpose is to preserve one of the three remaining Japantowns in the United States … and to implement the JCHESS document which has been supported by the planning commission, the board of supervisors, and was supported by the mayor. So that is our mission and goal,” Mori said. The Japantown Cultural Heritage and Economic Sustainability Strategy is a city approved document that suggested the development of the community benefit district and the remediation of the Peace Plaza.

“I think the interest is to help ensure that Japantown — the property owners, businesses — remain viable and everything we can possibly do to improve things for those key stakeholders are achieved,” Ishida said on the community benefit district.

Additionally, the expiration of a set of covenants loom in the horizon for the community.

Mori noted that the developers of the Japan Center East and West Malls — Beverly Hills-based 3D Investments — have been bound by covenants which restrict their development. “Those covenants are up in 2021. … So we need to be proactive on that situation as opposed to reactive.”

“A lot of us are worried about what’s going to happen, because 3D hasn’t been communicative with any of us,” Hashimoto said. “It could be sold, developed, we have to see what happens. There’s some community folks meeting to see if the current covenants could be extended, but 3D probably will not agree to that.”

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