Metro Project not as bad as pandemic for Little Tokyo


LOS ANGELES — The Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s Regional Connector construction has been disruptive for residents, businesses and nonprofit organizations in Little Tokyo, but not as disruptive as the COVID-19 pandemic, according to three prominent Nikkei who work there.

As part of the Regional Connector project, Metro has permanently closed the Gold Line Little Tokyo Station at First and Alameda streets and will replace it with a new underground subway station below First Street at Central Avenue. Metro will operate a free bus shuttle between Union Station and Little Tokyo through mid-2022 until the Regional Connector opens.

The shuttle departs from Union Station and makes stops at First and San Pedro streets in the heart of Little Tokyo, and First and Vignes streets, near the Los Angeles Hompa Hongwanji Buddhist Temple (Nishi Hongwanji Buddhist Temple).

The two-year construction project will connect the L (Gold) Line tracks in Little Tokyo/Arts District to the new 1.9-mile twin rail tunnels under downtown Los Angeles and will ultimately bring together the A (Blue), E (Expo) and L (Gold) Lines. The light-rail extension is expected to serve 88,000 riders daily. The project budget is $1.756 billion.

Definitely Disruptive
Erich Nakano, executive director of the Little Tokyo Service Center, told Nichi Bei Weekly in an e-mail, “The current construction and street closures are definitely disruptive, as well as the loss of public parking, and has hurt small businesses as well as visitor traffic to the cultural institutions such as Japanese American National Museum and Japanese American Cultural and Community Center. However, the immediate impact of the Regional Connector project and closure of the Gold Line are nowhere close to the impact of the pandemic and subsequent economic shutdown.”

The Regional Connector station under construction in Little Tokyo is having a long-term impact on the local real estate market, Nakano warned.

“Because the Regional Connector station will be the second busiest station in L.A., it makes Little Tokyo an even more attractive place for corporate investors and developers. This has led to turnover of ownership of commercial properties, and with that we have seen commercial rents rising. We have unfortunately seen some long-time businesses that have had to close over the past few years. And we have also seen these new corporate owners being less responsive to their small business tenants … to consider renegotiating leases since many of these businesses have not been allowed to open during the pandemic, to respecting the eviction moratorium and not harassing small businesses about back rent and late fees.”

While the Regional Connector project created some negative effects, the biggest impact on businesses — and as a result the workers at all the Little Tokyo small businesses — is the pandemic and shutdown, the LTSC chief stressed.

“Many workers have been laid off or have had hours cut. For seniors, while the construction has been disruptive to their ability to walk to restaurants and shops, the biggest impact for them has been the pandemic and the isolation they have had to endure.”

Nakano is uncertain what percentage of the buildings housing the businesses, nonprofit groups and residents in Little Tokyo are owned by locals (Nikkei and other stakeholders), and what percentage are owned by absentee landlords. He noted that there have been many new market rate residential complexes that have come up in Little Tokyo — more than 1,000 units in the past 10 years.

LTSC, along with the Little Tokyo Community Council, persuaded Metro to help with limited grants for small businesses being affected by Metro construction, Nakano revealed.

Under pressure from LTSC and LTCC, Metro also provided funding for marketing — to let people know that businesses are still open, and to let people know what streets are closed, and where people can park.

“They have provided funding for Go Little Tokyo, which is the marketing arm for Little Tokyo businesses. They have also provided funding for LTSC small business counselors to provide assistance to businesses being impacted by Metro construction.”

Because the pandemic has had a much larger impact, LTSC small business counselors have been working overtime to help businesses survive, he stated.

“We think at least 10 businesses have permanently closed since the pandemic started — but there could be many more. About 75 percent remained open, or have tried to re-open as restrictions have eased, but they are all struggling … We helped businesses apply for federal stimulus grants and loans such as the Paycheck Protection Program forgivable loan, and the Economic Injury Disaster Loans, as well as county, city and nonprofit grant programs. Along with LTCC, we worked with the city to close part of First Street to provide for al fresco dining for restaurants there.”

For the seniors forced to isolate for health and safety concerns, many were nervous about fighting crowds at grocery stores, Nakano reported.

“In partnership with Keiro and LTCC, we created and operate the Little Tokyo Eats program … we purchase hot dinners from Little Tokyo restaurants at market prices — as a way to provide them with some revenue — and then subsidize them down to $3 per meal for seniors. We have been delivering meals Monday, Wednesday and Friday … By the end of this year, we will have delivered over 11,000 meals to seniors in six buildings in Little Tokyo … and will have provided over $115,000 in revenue to Little Tokyo restaurants. In addition, LTSC has organized small scale, socially distant and safe social activities for seniors at these buildings … to help address the effects of social isolation.”

For workers and low-income residents, LTSC created a $100,000 emergency cash assistance fund, from donations they have received for their COVID relief work, and a grant from a local foundation to provide emergency cash grants to individuals and families who have lost their livelihood due to the pandemic, he added.

“In addition, we have been helping people applying for unemployment and other cash benefits being offered by county and city governments. Since people cannot receive their federal stimulus check … unless they filed a 2019 tax return, we’ve reopened our Volunteer Income Tax Assistance program where we help people file a 2019 tax return. We assisted over 300 residents file returns, making them eligible for the stimulus check, but many also received cash in the form of the Earned Income Tax Credit along with their tax return.”

Handful of Closures
Kristin Fukushima, managing director of the Little Tokyo Community Council, stated in an e-mail that “It’s been hard to measure the specific impact of Metro construction and closures this year as it happens simultaneously with everything else that has happened in 2020. But we also know that any time there are street closures, or we see something like the Gold Line station … shut down, it takes people awhile to get used to the changes.”

Little Tokyo has a wide range of residents hurt by the pandemic, she commented.

“We know that the folks who live in affordable housing in the neighborhood have been grateful for the support the community has shown, from food deliveries to LTSC’s food pantry. Little Tokyo senior residents all continue to struggle with isolation and the disruption to their daily lives and ability to access goods, services.”

The Metro impacts were expected, but dealing with them on top of the pandemic and recession was “not anything that could have been predicted,” Fukushima pointed out. “We’ve been ‘lucky’ to see only a handful of closures from businesses so far, but as the pandemic continues, we should expect to see more unless we’re able to come up with new solutions and ways to support our small businesses.”

Nonprofits are also all struggling financially, as the pandemic has interrupted events, fundraising, and funding priorities in ways that impact each organization, she noted. “Many of the organizations, churches, and temples, have found ways to create new fundraising initiatives or adjust them to be virtual, but we know such efforts are unlikely to fully make up for the losses.”

‘We Have to Gaman’
The Regional Connector project is “definitely a nuisance, it’s definitely unsightly, but once it’s up and running, I believe it will benefit the community,” Irene Tsukada Simonian, owner of Bunkado gift shop, said over the telephone. “We have to gaman (have patience, endure) … and get through the rougher times.”

The businesswoman revealed that her business took a big financial hit with gross sales down 50 percent. “It’s very hard on my employees too. They lost a lot of income as well.”

Heading into the holiday season, loyal customers are coming back to Bunkado, and to Little Tokyo, she said. “I’m getting feedback from customers that they want to support mom-and-pop shops … So, that’s been really nice to see from our customers.”

Metro has given out free two-hour parking validations for use at two different parking lots in Little Tokyo, Tsukada Simonian said. “Metro does stuff like that to promote business for Little Tokyo and for the mitigation of the inconvenience to businesses and customers of their construction project.”

Bunkado, which was closed from March 15 to June 15 because of the pandemic, reopened very slowly, three days a week on weekends, with shorter hours and fewer employees. “Little by little I’ve added more days, more employees and more hours per day,” she said. “We’re finally open seven days a week, shorter hours, from 11 to 6.”

Some businesses in Little Tokyo are doing better than others, she noted. “Some businesses are still closed, and some closed for good. Some are doing very limited business, curbside only … I can’t think of any business in Little Tokyo that has not been negatively affected by the pandemic and the Metro construction.”

Gentrification is a major concern in Little Tokyo because rents are going up and driving some businesses out, the Nikkei entrepreneur complained. “Some amount of gentrification generates customers. But if it drives out the older businesses that have been here for a long time and are part of the flavor of Little Tokyo, then it’s almost tragic to see. The last thing I’d want to see is for Little Tokyo to be taken over by franchises or big box stores.”

Nevertheless, she is optimistic for the future of Little Tokyo because of many young people who have gotten very active. “I have a marketing team of 30-somethings who volunteered to do social media for me, and they created a new Website … It’s exciting, it’s more appealing to younger audiences … I’m seeing many more young people now than middle-age or older people in Little Tokyo.”

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