Little Tokyo celebrates completion of community recreation center


photo ©2020 Weldon Brewster Photography

photo ©2020 Weldon Brewster Photography

LOS ANGELES — A community’s 26-year dream to build a much-needed community gym in the heart of Little Tokyo and downtown Los Angeles has become a reality, as Little Tokyo Service Center completed construction of the Terasaki Budokan.

Terasaki Budokan is a two-story, 39,000 square-foot facility located at 249 S. Los Angeles St., between Second and Third streets. “The big gym in Little Tokyo features two basketball courts that convert to four volleyball courts along with space for martial arts. Additionally, there is an outdoor plaza with a stage, second-level terrace, children’s playground, courtyard, community room and underground parking,” according to the center.

The gym has an enhanced video system to capture real-time sports statistics, to develop highlight reels, and more.

The campaign to build a community recreation center in Little Tokyo was taken up in 1994 by LTSC, a social service and community development organization that has been creating positive change for the people and places in Southern California for 40 years. LTSC believed through recreation, and other programs, families and young people could be introduced or re-connected with the Little Tokyo community and become invested in its future.

“Terasaki Budokan has been a community dream for 26 years, and now, I’m happy to say that dream is now a reality,” Ryan Lee, the director of the new recreational center, stated via e-mail to the Nichi Bei Weekly. “I’m excited to open our doors to the community for sports, arts, culture, and more when it’s safe to do so.”

“We’re all very excited,” Lee declared. “The community’s endless support has been uplifting. We can’t wait to contribute to a vibrant and energetic Little Tokyo. The facility is state of the art, and we hope to be a cornerstone in the community … We’re looking forward to coming together at the facility as soon as it is safe to do so.”

With the support of the entire Little Tokyo community, LTSC prioritized the building of the recreational space in this Japanese American enclave and took the lead role in the project because of its experience with commercial real estate development, Lee explained.

­HOME COURT — The Terasaki Budokan is a two-story, 39,000 square-foot facility in Little Tokyo. photo ©2020 Weldon Brewster Photography

“Although this multi-use recreation center has been the community’s dream for quite some time now, it was the leadership of Bill Watanabe and the late Dean Matsubayashi, both former executive directors of LTSC, that took the Terasaki Budokan project to the next level,” he pointed out.

Crowning Achievement
“Budokan is special because its development is crucial to our mission of preserving Little Tokyo as the historical, cultural and symbolic home for the Southern California Nikkei community,” said Matsubayashi at the building’s groundbreaking in 2017.

Watanabe, who spearheaded the campaign to build a community gym, commented in an e-mail regarding Terasaki Budokan’s completion, “I feel great gratification and a sense of accomplishment; it is the crowning achievement of my social work career. I regret I had to retire before the job was completed so I also feel great gratitude to the LTSC staff and board of directors who saw the project through to completion despite facing many challenges and obstacles.”

Explaining why LTSC decided to build the community gym, Watanabe recalled, “I had heard about the gym that was built at the Japanese Cultural and Community Center of Northern California and how much it is being used by youth, seniors and everyone and was a big boost to the San Francisco Japantown. Immediately (this was in 1994), I realized that we needed to build a gym in Little Tokyo, not only for the advantages of a gym for sports and fitness but because the attraction of sports would bring many people, especially youth and young families to come to Little Tokyo who will also support the local businesses and community nonprofits.”

While the idea and initiative to build the community gym came from Watanabe, he credited his staff, who worked “very hard from the beginning to get the project off the ground — the first task being to find a site that could accommodate a large gym facility. This is not easy to do in downtown L.A. People like Lisa Sugino, Dean Matsubayashi, Scott Ito and many others worked tirelessly for many years. The city of L.A. donated a site near our office about 2008 and our fundraising team did a tremendous job raising the necessary construction funds. The fundraising campaign was supported by literally thousands of individual donors and also foundations, corporations, and government grants.”

In 2009, LTSC identified a suitable site, and launched a capital campaign with a $1 million donation from the Aratani Foundation. In addition to receiving financial support from various state, county and city sources, as well as foundations, hundreds of donors came forward with smaller yet significant contributions. A $3.5 million gift from the Terasaki Foundation provided a tremendous boost to the campaign.

Budokan’s mission is to “provide a community space for people to engage in sports and fitness and also special events,” Watanabe explained. “Sports like basketball and volleyball help to teach teamwork and cooperation, where other sports like martial arts help to teach discipline and focus, and of course they are all good for physical health and fitness. We hope seniors will be able to take fitness and exercise classes in the community room. There is also an outdoor event space on the roof above the parking garage.”

“The Budokan is in the heart of downtown, and even though it is primarily aimed to serve the Nikkei community, it should also try to accommodate the needs of the inner city and neighboring communities such as Skid Row,” Watanabe exclaimed. “There has been some dialogue with these neighbors for many years as the gym was being developed.”

photo ©2020 Weldon Brewster Photography

Home Court for All
LTSC announced that Terasaki Budokan will provide “opportunities to connect visitors to Japanese American culture and a vibrant, sustainable Little Tokyo,” and the facility recently started hosting “Mi CASA in Little Tokyo,” a socially distanced after-school program for those living in LTSC’s affordable housing units and the downtown area.

LTSC aims to sustain the Terasaki Budokan financially through an endowment fund, from donations, and by renting out space for various community activities, according to Lee. “Terasaki Budokan is available for private sports and event rentals. Our underground parking garage is open to the public, and we host two fundraisers annually: Straight Out Of Little Tokyo.”

The cost for the entire project was $33.8 million, Lee revealed. Gruen Associates was the architect and Walton handled the construction.

To mark the project’s completion, LTSC held a virtual celebration Oct. 24 on YouTube that offered insights into key moments in the project’s history, showed the facility’s spaces, and provided a sneak peek into some of the activities that will be hosted at the “Home Court for All.” This celebration preceded a community grand opening event that will happen when LTSC can safely celebrate in-person.

“A Home Court for All is Budokan’s tagline, and it means that our facility embraces diversity and will open our doors to all,” Lee added.

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