San Jose’s Japantown keeps optimistic outlook going into new year

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NEW DEVELOPMENT RISES ­— The 518-unit mixed use apartment complex takes shape as construction continues. photo by Roy Hirabayashi

NEW DEVELOPMENT RISES ­— The 518-unit mixed use apartment complex takes shape as construction continues. photo by Roy Hirabayashi

San Jose Japantown leaders have expressed restrained hope for 2022. The ethnic enclave continues to navigate the pandemic as a long-delayed mixed-use apartment complex project moves forward.

“The business climate in Japantown remains slower than pre-pandemic, but our businesses continue to do well in spite of adversity,” Tamiko Rast, president of the Japantown Business Association, said in an e-mail to the Nichi Bei Weekly. “We believe the merchants remain cautiously optimistic, in spite of supply chain issues and staff shortages, that things will be better in 2022.”

Rast said various events held in the ethnic enclave, including Viva Calle, an open streets event, and the recent Holiday Toy Drive, have kept families coming to the neighborhood.

Roy Hirabayashi, local community leader and former co-head of San Jose Taiko, said many of the merchants opening small shops along the commercial corridor for the last three to four years have been independent artists and other small business owners. In the last year, Hirabayashi said he was surprised to see a new hair salon open amid the pandemic.

“And it’s catering to sort of a different audience of folks that perhaps would have not have come to Japantown before,” Hirabayashi said to the Nichi Bei Weekly over the phone.

However, some empty storefronts still remain in the neighborhood. Hirabayashi said two of the storefronts were empty prior to the pandemic and have remained so throughout. He expressed particular concern for the former Kubota Restaurant building located at 593 Fifth St. He said the former restaurant occupied a “prime spot” in Japantown, especially with its own parking lot.

Shiro Kubota, former owner of Kubota Restaurant and current owner of Gombei, closed the location early on during the pandemic. In a phone interview conducted in Japanese, Kubota told the Nichi Bei Weekly he felt the former restaurant was no longer financially viable. For the first year of the pandemic, he was also wary as to whether Gombei would weather the rough economic conditions as he tried to keep his staff and attract customers. Kubota added that outdoor dining helped him stay afloat.

Two years into the pandemic, Kubota said the business climate in Japantown has improved, especially since October of last year.

Kubota said he sold the Kubota Restaurant property to a friend. He said the new owner’s two children are dentists and plan to open a dental office once zoning changes are finalized with the city.

While existing merchants continue to work through the pandemic, Japantown also has several new developments coming to the neighborhood. Sixth and Jackson, a 518-unit apartment community, and an adjoining nonprofit Creative Center for the Arts complex at the former site of the city’s corporation yard, inches toward completion after the pandemic slowed the projects down.

Shea Properties is developing the apartment buildings and 17,000 square-feet of retail space, which broke ground in March of 2019. They offered no comment on the ongoing development. The Creative Center for the Arts, a joint initiative between San Jose Taiko and SVCreates, which aims to “accelerate Silicon Valley’s creative culture,” also moves forward slowly.

“Well, for us, San Jose Taiko, we’re not happy, naturally, because we’re trying to still build our rehearsal and office spaces there,” Hirabayashi said.

Current Executive Director Wisa Uemura declined to comment on the project. According to Hirabayashi, initial plans had the nonprofit moving to the new arts center by the end of 2021. Hirabayashi said the pandemic had slowed down work as getting paperwork done and holding meetings with the city of San Jose has been difficult during the pandemic.

“Things are moving forward, but it’s at a much slower pace now, unfortunately,” he said.

Meanwhile, Shea Properties’ projects move forward, with Hirabayashi noting that the exterior of one of the buildings now looks complete. While tenants, including new retail and restaurants, have yet to start moving in, the Japantown Business Association is working to find a good match.

“We look forward to welcoming new neighbors at Sixth and Jackson, as well as at the upcoming 7EMPIRE development at N. 7th/Empire Streets,” Rast said. “There are restaurant and retail spaces available at Shea Properties’ development (6th and Jackson), and I’m in regular communication with the brokers to evaluate and discuss potential opportunities. Shea Properties has demonstrated strong intent to respect the fabric of our community and source tenants that enhance our neighborhood.”

Hirabayashi said the community is wary of large developments, such as Sixth and Jackson, which will add 518 additional residential units. He also said the community does not want formula retail such as Starbucks to occupy the new retail space.

But he said he felt the large development will ultimately be a positive impact on Japantown.

“Communities always kind of complain about parking and traffic and whatever, but once things kind of settle in, I feel that people figure it out,” Hirabayashi said. “I just feel the higher density of folks is really going to boost the retail action in Japantown, so I’m just feeling that the businesses are going to be doing really well once all this stuff gets finished.”

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