Salt Lake City’s historic Japantown plans for facelift

After more than a decade of fighting for preservation and conducting a planning process during a global pandemic, Salt Lake City’s historic Japantown community has secured plans and a commitment from public officials to preserve its place in the city’s downtown. With the city’s approval this past April of the Japantown Design Strategy and Guidelines, the community must now get to the hard part of the process: funding it.

The West Quarter development. photo by Rolen Yoshinaga

The city allocated $100,000 for the city’s strategy and guidelines, which come as the Japantown community worked to mitigate impacts from the 240-unit luxury apartment complex and 270-room hotel complex currently under construction on the southwest corner to Salt Lake City’s Japantown Street. The developers and city also agreed to contribute tax revenue over a 20-year period to help fund the $7.4 million project proposed in the strategy and guidelines.

The plan, developed by GSBS Architects and funded by the Redevelopment Agency of Salt Lake City, proposes a street-scape design for Japantown, which caters to the community’s needs and a future center for Japanese American community life in the Salt Lake region.

Salt Lake City’s Japantown dates back more than 100 years. According to the city-endorsed plan, the Japantown formed in 1907 to support miners and farmers and continued to grow throughout the first half of the 20th century. The community expanded during World War II, as Japanese Americans left the West Coast after the start of the war to avoid the wartime concentration camps, which incarcerated some 120,000 people of Japanese descent. The city was then the temporary headquarters of the Japanese American Citizens League and continued growing through the middle of the 20th century.

Salt Lake City’s Japantown, however, was devastated in 1966 as much of it was demolished to make way for Salt Lake County’s Salt Palace Convention Center.

“There were hotels, markets, pool houses, a tofu house, beauty shops, everything,” Jani Iwamoto, a Democrat Utah State Senator representing the fourth district of Utah, told the Nichi Bei Weekly. “And then they were destroyed.”

Today, Japantown consists of a block behind the convention center neighbored by its truck loading bay. Japanese American businesses, such as the Sage Market and some restaurants, are interspersed throughout the city, but there is no longer a Japanese American commercial center in the city.

Today, “Japantown Street” is home to the Salt Lake Buddhist Temple. photo by Rolen Yoshinaga;

The Salt Lake Buddhist Temple, founded in 1912 and the Japanese Church of Christ, founded in 1918, are the final physical vestiges of the once thriving community.

“The thing that I keep stressing is, we are growing, we need more density, we need more buildings for people, but what makes me emotional is that we shouldn’t do that at the expense of the community,” Iwamoto said.

Iwamoto and other community members fought for recognition and preservation of their community, forming the Japanese Community Preservation Committee in 2006. Today the one-block stretch of 100 South between 200 West and 300 West streets has been renamed “Japantown Street,” a feat Iwamoto said was the first in the nation, but other developments continue to threaten the future of the community.

“We were always reactive and we wouldn’t be at the seat at the table,” Iwamoto said. “We’ve always been for development and helping, but to include us in those conversations and not destroy us.”

When the Ritchie Group proposed their latest project, now under construction across the street from the Japanese Church of Christ, community members felt the development would permanently kill Japantown.

The proposed development faces inwards and the garbage collection point for the building is across the street from the Christian church. Community members felt making Japantown Street the “backside” of yet another development would finally destroy any chance of reviving the community and asked the developers to provide some concessions to benefit Japantown. As part of the agreement, the developers repaved the adjacent church parking lots to be flush with the new development.

Community members such as retired Judge Raymond Uno, a member of the Japanese Community Preservation Committee; Rolen Yoshinaga, member of the Salt Lake Buddhist Temple; and Iwamoto headed the design guideline workgroup.

The plans include needs outlined by organizers of the annual Nihon Matsuri (Japan festival) in the spring and Bon Odori in the summer by the Buddhist temple. Yoshinaga estimated some 500 people attended the Bon Odori each year prior to the pandemic and the event featured 100 dancers.

Corinne Piazza, the Redevelopment Agency’s project manager for the planning document, said the strategy provides “a long term vision focused on improvements to the public right of way on Japantown Street,” including physical improvements such as a new layout for the street, street lights, space for public art and other improvements requested by community members and observed from other Japantowns in the United States including San Jose and San Francisco’s Japantowns.

“Overall, the next steps will be for the community to decide how they’d like to be organized to begin seeking funding for the Japantown improvements, and we anticipate the community will apply for city, RDA, county, state, and even national funding to support the revitalization of Salt Lake City’s Japantown,” Piazza said.

Piazza said the project, which will cost an estimated $7.4 million, will be implemented in three phases. The first phase will cost an estimated $2 to 2.6 million.

Yoshinaga, a retired director of planning and development of Salt Lake County, also said the plan is driving additional conversation at his church on how to revitalize Japantown. The Buddhist temple owns several structures and plots on the street, including its temple, the adjacent Lumbini’s Garden gift and bookstore, and a parking lot. He said his church is exploring all options to develop the properties they own to lease out to commercial businesses to generate more tax revenue in the future.

Yoshinaga said the latest plans gives the community an opportunity to look toward the future.

“By making these plans, the city has invested a significant amount of funds to try to create a path forward that would preserve Japantown as a destination, as a place in the city,” Yoshinaga said. “Up to this point, the city had not made a real firm commitment with funds or with any kind of plan document that suggested that there would be a future Japantown.

“There were plenty of resolutions, things like that of support, but not a real hard plan, and this is the first time that the city has invested funds to do it and created something that we can work with and try to make, come into reality.”

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