Little Tokyo supporters wary of rail construction, gentrification

MAJOR PROJECT ­— Construction of the Metro Subway Connector in Little Tokyo to open in two to three years. photo by Bill Watanabe

LOS ANGELES — The Metro Regional Connector rail line, slated to run through Little Tokyo upon completion in 2021, has raised concerns among people who care about the ethnic Japanese enclave’s survival and want to protect the 134-year-old neighborhood from the negative effects of gentrification.

Metro’s project, now under construction, will bring three new underground transit stations to Downtown Los Angeles, link up the Gold, Blue, and Expo rail lines and eliminate transfers for travelers on those three lines, giving riders a speedier, more efficient trip. The Regional Connector is expected to greatly increase the number of visitors and residents in Little Tokyo.

Little Tokyo, already one of the top destinations in Los Angeles, is a neighborhood rich in history, culture, food, entertainment and experiences, a place where visitors can try some mochi ice cream, slurp tasty ramen or find serenity at the James Irvine Japanese Garden.

Mom-and-Pop Shops at Risk
Bill Watanabe, retired executive director of the Little Tokyo Service Center, predicted via e-mail that more foot traffic from a rapid transit station will bring about higher rents and increased real estate.

“One could easily guess that rents for commercial and retail spaces in Little Tokyo will likely go up in dramatic fashion — perhaps double digits as high as 20 percent at a time,” Watanabe said.

“These increased space costs could make small businesses — the ‘mom-and-pop’ family businesses that have operated in Little Tokyo for generations — have a much harder time to survive.”

Having greater foot-traffic in Little Tokyo “is not a bad thing, and it could be a good thing for small businesses, bringing more customers to their businesses from all over the Metro rail system,” he commented. “The downside is the increased rents that will come; Little Tokyo is currently thriving with people coming — the impact of more people coming will have both positive and negative effects.”

LTSC reported earlier this year that in the last decade more than 1,000 luxury residential housing units were built in Little Tokyo, part of a larger trend in downtown Los Angeles where 6,000-plus market-rate housing units are planned. Meanwhile, many affordable housing units in Little Tokyo are at risk as their affordability covenants approach expiration dates.

“This surge in development … threatens the cultural and historic character of Little Tokyo,” reported LTSC, noting that there are 400-plus businesses in the neighborhood, but in 2015, at least a dozen businesses were displaced from the Little Tokyo or went out of business due to rising rents, construction disruptions, and changing demographics. Since then, more than 20 local businesses have gone under.

Gentrification, which seems to follow any major transportation development, “brings with it powerful economic forces whose bottom-line is to make money without much regard for how it impacts the local neighborhood,” Watanabe cautioned.

In this scenario, the retail sector could be dominated by the deep-pocketed chain stores that exist everywhere, Watanabe predicted. Then Little Tokyo will “lose its authenticity as an ethnic and cultural neighborhood — it could lose the ethnic flavor that makes it different and unique in the city.”

The nonprofit institutions like Japanese American National Museum, Japanese American Cultural and Community Center, Visual Communications and the Budokan community gymnasium (now under construction), among others “will benefit to some extent with more attendance to their events, which is a good thing,” he added. “But the setting of Little Tokyo as a historic cultural neighborhood could drastically change.”

There are many people who “have a heart and concern and love for Little Tokyo and wish to see it endure and survive into future generations of the Nikkei community,” Watanabe added.

“Groups like LTSC, the Little Tokyo Community Council, and the businesses and other community stakeholders have to work together to try to ensure that the future of Little Tokyo as a historic ethnic enclave will continue … A new effort called the Little Tokyo Community Impact Fund has been started to raise funds to purchase property and try to help keep the small businesses in place.”

Senator Aided Little Tokyo
Local merchant Irene Tsukada Simonian recalled in a telephone conversation that Metro’s original plan called for the rail to run through Little Tokyo at ground level on Second Street.

“It would have bisected Little Tokyo,” she said. “It would have been terrible … for the businesses on Second Street to have it run right in front of their shops.”

When community members rallied to complain, Metro decided to run it underground through Little Tokyo, the gift shop owner explained. “It helped a lot to have a unified voice from Little Tokyo … and Metro listened.

At the time, Sen. Daniel Inouye wrote a letter to Metro that influenced its decision to run the trains underground on Second Street, revealed LTCC Board member Chris Komai. “Sen. Inouye was then the chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee. Since Metro needed federal funds to build its project, they immediately became more receptive to the criticism that LTCC and Little Tokyo Business Association had been voicing. I believe Metro unveiled its original plans around 2010 and they made major changes in 2011.”

When the Regional Connector starts operating in 2021, the Little Tokyo station at First Street and Central Avenue is expected to be one of the busiest, Komai stated in an e-mail. “Developers have already been looking at property in Little Tokyo with thoughts of building larger developments. LTCC and other groups had complained to Metro that the lengthy construction period of the project … would hurt our older businesses, many of which were just getting by.”

A lot of the activists’ fears about gentrification have come true and several businesses have left, he explained. “LTCC knows the Regional Connector will bring more people to Little Tokyo, but a lot of legacy businesses might not be around to share in those customers.”

There is a lot of new housing development in and around Little Tokyo, but “most of the people living there don’t connect to historic Little Tokyo,” Komai declared. “They don’t know our history and culture and seem indifferent to our neighborhood. Much of this was inevitable, but we keep hoping we can recruit some of the new residents to value our history and heritage.”

One of the biggest fears is that all the old businesses will be priced out, Komai noted. “That is why any new developments in the area north of JANM (First Street North) and on the Mangrove site next to Nishi (Hongwanji) must be done with the express intent to help historic Little Tokyo. Since the City owns both these sites, we need to lobby for developments that will help preserve our community and not exploit it.”

The good news is that LTCC believes there is hope “as long as the key components to Little Tokyo are willing to work together,” he added. “We need the new businesses to become the foundation for our community’s future. Several businesses such as Cafe Dulce, Wolf & Crane and Baldoria helped to organize the Haunted Little Tokyo event around Halloween. This is a very promising sign, since none of the owners is Nikkei. Partnering with organizations like LTCC, we can pave the way for a more prosperous Little Tokyo that honors its past.”

Can’t Prohibit Non-Nikkei
The positive side of the Metro project, Tsukada Simonian observed, is that the trains will bring in more people. “The negative side is that when you start becoming accessible to a lot of people, there are outside developers who target communities that are near Metro stops. Real estate prices go up, rents go up. Some people will profit from it and gain from it, and others will not.”

The Nikkei community is trying to “keep its finger on the pulse on things in order to retain the small businesses, the historic and cultural flavor of Little Tokyo, so that it’s not taken over by national chain stores one by one,” she added.

There is a concern that Little Tokyo will lose its Japanese flavor with gentrification, she noted. “But there’s a fine line. You can’t say, ‘Unless you’re Japanese, you can’t do business here.’ The history of Little Tokyo is that this was one of the few areas that Japanese people were able to come to. For us to discriminate against anyone coming here is disingenuous. We have had some excellent businesses that contributed a lot to this community in their time and improved Little Tokyo — and they’re not all Japanese.”

Business has already improved in Little Tokyo, the shop owner acknowledged. “We had some hard times around 2007 to 2009, really rough times, and a lot of businesses — including mine — were really struggling. It’s better now, and yet it’s not as good as when my parents ran the store … in the ‘60s and ‘70s.”

She remembered that it was so bad 15 or 20 years ago, that people stopped coming to Little Tokyo at night. “Now, it’s a lot more vibrant. Young people come here and think it’s really cool. It’s become a destination. Little Tokyo is unique.”

Tsukada Simonian, who went to New York in 1975 for college, lived there for 17 years and returned to L.A. in the 1990s, exclaimed, “This is the most fun I’ve ever had working, just running a gift shop. I thought Little Tokyo was boring when I was a teenager. I grew up here, but I had to go away to appreciate Little Tokyo.”

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