For some 40 years, the San Mateo Japanese American Community Center has adapted to the needs of the Nikkei community in San Mateo County. The community center located at 415 S. Claremont St. in San Mateo, Calif., is now looking toward its next steps as Windy Hill Property Ventures plans to redevelop the downtown block it’s located on into a mix of office space and new residential units.
According to Wesley Taoka, the center’s executive director, the nonprofit was originally founded in 1975 by the San Mateo chapter of the Japanese American Citizens League. The organization primarily focused on serving Issei seniors. The center moved into its current location in the early 1980s, sharing the property with the San Mateo Japanese Gardeners’ Association at 503 East 5th Ave. next door. When the gardeners decided to retire and disband their organization, they donated their property to the community center, which became its own standalone 501(c)(3) in 2003 to accept the gift of land.
Taoka told the Nichi Bei Weekly that Windy Hill Property Ventures of Palo Alto, Calif. approached the organization some time ago offering to purchase their property so that they could develop the entire block. The Sansei head of the organization said they reached an agreement earlier this spring to sell their property and seek a new home.
Windy Hill plans to redevelop the entire block, located just outside San Mateo’s commercial downtown area. Its neighboring blocks have already been undergoing major changes, including a just-completed mixed-use office and residential building at Fourth Avenue and Claremont Street, as well as a 225-unit affordable housing project located across the street from the community center known as Kiku Crossing. The developer plans to build 143,000 square feet of office space and 86 residential units with an underground garage at 500 E. Fourth Ave.
According to a statement by Windy Hill, the project is in its entitlement phase. The company hopes it will be fully entitled in 12 to 18 months. Construction will take another 24 to 30 months, according to the developer.
Today, the community center serves a mix of Japanese American community members as well as the Japanese cultural arts community. Taoka is the only employee, a part-time executive director, and the classes and clubs that meet at the community center are run by volunteers, he said. The center continues to offer some bilingual navigation services for seniors and a Japanese language library, which was popular when the organization first reopened after the COVID-19 pandemic in the summer last year, as well as classroom spaces for martial arts, ikebana and Japanese language classes. The building also hosts JACL meetings and serves as a gathering space for the community, including hosting three separate karaoke clubs.
“Many of our activities are during the day, and so it’s mainly retired people,” Taoka said. “We don’t have members. The way we operate is, there are clubs and classes that meet here, and they have informal mentors who attend the classes.”
Taoka added a large portion of the population the community center serves are Shin-Issei, Nikkei who moved to America after World War II. He added, however, that they do not necessarily come to the center seeking services.
“The need for interpretation services, probably, it’s less now,” he said. “We can sort of help out on occasion if people need some help, but mainly people come here for social gatherings.”
While Taoka said he could not share the exact number of people who use the community center each year, he estimates the center has at least a few hundred supporters.
During the pandemic, the center was closed. They reopened in the summer of 2021, but limited the number of people allowed inside.
“We’ve only reopened slowly. We’re still not completely open,” Taoka said. “When we initially opened we tried to limit the number of people who were here at any one time, so that eliminated most of the clubs. … And then, gradually we increased that number.”
Today, some of the clubs and classes have returned, but Taoka said he is only working at the community center from Tuesdays through Thursdays, instead of Mondays through Fridays as he was prior to the pandemic. He does, however, note that some groups, including martial arts classes, operate on nights and weekends.
Upon agreeing to sell the property, Taoka said Windy Hill offered to help it find a new home. He said he meets with the developer and a real estate broker via Zoom to look at potential sites.
“Some places look very nice,” he said. “And if there’s something that’s interesting, a few of us go off and look at it.
And some of them are attractive, but for one reason or another, it’s not exactly what we want.”
Taoka said he must find a location that fulfills several needs. He said he hopes to remain centrally located in the county, find a building that is accessible for people with disabilities and affordable. Taoka did not mention a deadline to move out by and declined to name a price for the JACC property.
While Taoka is still searching for a new location, he said he is looking forward to the change, recognizing the changes his neighborhood is undergoing.
“We’re looking forward to our new chapter for our community center,” he said.