Metro Rail construction project impacts life in Little Tokyo

LOS ANGELES — The Metro Rail Regional Connector construction project that burrowed underground through downtown Los Angeles created serious disruptions to daily life in Little Tokyo and even caused several businesses to close, according to some local citizens.

Construction for the Regional Connector began in 2014 and it is slated to open for service in 2023, according to the Metro Website. Tunneling work and construction on the Little Tokyo/Arts District Station (First and Central), Historic Broadway Station (2nd and Broadway) and Grand Ave Arts/Bunker Hill Station (2nd Pl. and Hope) is 90 percent complete.

Downtown L.A. already had light rail — the Red Line and the Gold Line, which has a station in Little Tokyo. The 1.9-mile-long Regional Connector connects various light rail lines so that riders can reach their destination without having to transfer, which, Little Tokyo Community Council’s Managing Director Kristin Fukushima said in an e-mail, “will provide a more efficient and quicker form of transportation.”

The interruptions during the first years of the project included heavy construction that necessitated years of street closures and other construction problems, Fukushima stated. “This had a deep impact on folks who live, work, and visit Little Tokyo, but in particular the small businesses.”

Several businesses closed as a result of the Regional Connector construction.

“The community has spent endless hours working closely … with Metro to try and mitigate impacts to things like Nisei Week and the holiday season — although the threat of a lawsuit was needed for the latter,” Fukushima noted. “Little Tokyo has been harder to access during this period of construction, and since the construction impacts will differ depending on the time period, that inconsistency has been challenging for visitors to navigate.”

The benefits of the Metro project for Little Tokyo are that public transportation in general is “very much needed for both accessibility and environmental reasons,” she emphasized. “The RC will undoubtedly bring many people to Little Tokyo upon opening, and has been projected to become the second busiest station in the region. This will hopefully benefit the arts, cultural, spiritual, and community institutions in the neighborhood, as well as the small businesses. Residents will hopefully also benefit from the station opening.”

The community has built a strong relationship and partnership with Metro, according to Fukushima. “Metro has truly … worked closely hand-in-hand with the community to do their level best to address issues and be transparent in their decisions and actions.”

“The allure of a transit-oriented community with a station … has also brought a new wave of gentrification to the neighborhood, with speculators, new developers, and property owners looking to profit from the rise in land value in Little Tokyo — which has further added to the displacement of small businesses.”

Groups like Go Little Tokyo seek to inform visitors that small businesses are a core, foundational part of what makes Little Tokyo home, and hope to guide future transit riders to patronize small businesses in the neighborhood so that existing and longtime businesses can benefit from the rise in visitors once the station is completed, she stated.

“As someone who lives in downtown LA and is able to enjoy ample access to public transit, I personally do quite enjoy using public transportation (both trains and buses) as a way to get around,” Fukushima added. “Although I live close enough to walk to work in Little Tokyo, I will certainly use it to get around LA once it is open.”

Jackhammer Noise
Irene Tsukada Simonian, owner of Bunkado gift shop, said in a telephone interview, “In the beginning, business was bad for all of us, because there were a lot of street closures, a lot of dust from the construction, and heavy construction with lots of big trucks moving dirt from underground. I’m sure the restaurants that had outdoor dining were affected.”

In the project’s early years, the construction “affected my business a lot,” the Little Tokyo merchant commented. “There was a lot of noise and jackhammering. We had an awful lot of blackouts — electrical issues — meaning no Internet service … That was the worst time.”

Metro has given mitigation funds to the community to offset the negative impact and business losses, and offered free parking and shuttle buses, she reported. “With that money, we have events and marketing. When there’s a big event like (the) anime convention, Metro has paid for shuttle services to Little Tokyo … If Metro didn’t do anything, it would have been worse.”

Metro’s not ready to open yet,” stated Simonian. “I think they’re trying to coordinate several stations opening at the same time, maybe next spring … We’re looking forward to more visitors coming to Little Tokyo.”

Business is getting better, although some stores have closed this year, she added. “That was disturbing … It could be the homeless encampment that affected businesses in Little Tokyo.”

On the other hand, people are coming back to shop in Little Tokyo, she stressed. “We noticed a healthy return of customers. I don’t know if they felt cooped up because of COVID or they felt the need to support small businesses.”

At JANM’s Doorstep
Ann Burroughs, president and CEO of the Japanese American National Museum, stated:

“We look forward to the opening of the new Metro station and to the opportunities presented by having this busy new station so conveniently located across from our front door. The new station, which will be dedicated to the late Secretary Norman Y. Mineta, the former chair of JANM’s board of trustees, who served as the secretary of transportation in the (George W.) Bush administration, has the potential to bring thousands of commuters to JANM’s doorstep.”

The JANM chief added, “We are committed to working with the Little Tokyo community to ensure that the special character and identity of this historic neighborhood is preserved and maintained while we welcome and serve visitors, both new and returning, who take the Metro to experience the Museum and its programs.”

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