S.F. Survey aims to incorporate historical and cultural resources in Japantown

Screenshot of the Arches computer program

SURVEYING J-TOWN ­— Screenshot of San Francisco Cultural Resources Survey draft findings on Arches. screenshot

San Francisco aims to conduct a citywide inventory of its cultural resources with help from the city’s cultural districts to aid in future development and preservation efforts. Japantown and the Fillmore’s neighborhood commercial districts are the first areas to undergo the process.

The city, in partnership with the Japantown Task Force, held a community briefing Aug. 30 for the Japantown and Fillmore commercial corridor to discuss the city’s plans for the San Francisco Citywide Cultural Resources Survey, also known as S.F. Survey. During the presentation, Maggie Smith and Elena Moore, two preservation planners with the San Francisco Planning Department, presented the city’s plan to integrate a citywide database documenting culturally, historically and architecturally important properties into the Property Information Map through a multi-year effort.

“We value places and practices that people care about, and the people whose lives these places and practices enrich. Preservation helps communities hold a conversation on how to navigate change, while keeping what is meaningful for the benefit of current and future generations,” Smith said. “We see SF Survey as an opportunity to hold that conversation on how to navigate change, while keeping what is meaningful.”

Ultimately, Smith said she hopes the project will review some 120,000 properties throughout the city as she and her team work on the program through 2027 and potentially beyond. The city will enter the data it garners from the survey into a program known as Arches. It will organize the data in a number of categories, such as the people or institutions that were once associated with a property, as well as other reports and records the city has related to a property, including the 2013 Japantown Cultural Heritage Economic Sustainability Strategy Report or the historic Japantown maps by cartographer Ben Pease, as well as other non-Japantown specific reports like the citywide Modern Architecture Historic Context Statement. Ultimately, the inventory will become a living repository for the city that it will continue to update as time goes on.

Smith and Moore walked through the city’s process of surveying properties and gave a demonstration on how Arches makes the data they collect accessible, such as by listing the historic businesses once located in Japantown where the Japan Center Malls now stand.

Moore said the initial survey of the Japantown Neighborhood Commercial District recorded information on 256 properties, of which 62 contained historic resources and 142 did not. She said she would seek further feedback on 52 properties associated with “redevelopment, mentioned in the Japantown historic context statement or called out as cultural assets in the JCHESS, but … are not necessarily listed as historic resources in the land use sense.”

“And as a reminder, this is a multi-year iterative process, and so draft findings will be shared publicly upon each phase completion. Staff will conduct outreach and present their determinations on potential individual resources and districts to the community, followed by the historic preservation commission,” Moore said.

Properties with a “historic resource” designation, according to Smith, will have additional regulatory protections through the California Environmental Quality Act reviews, as well as be potentially eligible for tax incentives or be recognized as a local landmark. She added that,while properties may not fall within the narrower definition of possessing a historic resource, that would not preclude the property from being deemed a cultural asset or be located in a historic and or cultural district. Tenants within the property could also be eligible to be listed on the Legacy Business Registry.

Community members attending the presentation expressed that while the physical inventory of buildings within the ethnic enclave’s commercial corridor is important, many felt the inventory needs to address the history no longer physically present at many of the buildings as a result of the community’s forced removal through the wartime incarceration and the Redevelopment era evictions.

Community members Rich Hashimoto and Steve Nakajo commented that, while Moore’s walkthrough of the Arches program demonstrated how Benkyodo’s entry would be presented, the city needs to include more information. Hashimoto noted that the entry on Benkyodo should include photos and history from before the redevelopment era. Nakajo concurred that the survey needs to recognize what is no longer physically present in Japantown.

“When you make a presenta-tion, I can hardly focus on the buildings that you’re doing, because” what comes to mind “for me are the families that used to live in those buildings,” Nakajo said. “The element that’s missing here is the makeup of our community before the war and what our community was, and how do you measure it? How do you measure a building that used to be there? … How do you measure the families, the businesses that were here within the boundaries, and what’s the content? For us, it’s a declaration of our community and the preservation and moving forward within our development. History is history, past is past, but I just wanted to point out that there’s a deep emotional scar about this that every one of us feel and, like

I said, it’s hard for me to wrap around this because I feel a lot of emotion.”
Glynis Nakahara, president of the Japantown Task Force board, agreed with Hashimoto and Nakajo, calling for more information to be recorded within the survey in the future.

“I just thought that, perhaps not in this initial phase, but if it’s possible, to at the very least, acknowledge some of the historical richness of the businesses and families as Steve was referring to that no longer exists, but was a very important part of the heritage of Japantown,” she said. “It would be great to include that information.”

Smith noted that the city hopes to continue working with the community to help further inform the survey and that the inventory will eventually include both tangible and intangible resources. The study currently focuses on the tangible resources, such as the physical characteristics of buildings and the tenants within them. The survey also focuses on the city’s neighborhood commercial districts in order to work with the concurrent San Francisco Housing Element-driven rezoning efforts to address the housing shortage the city faces. Smith said the methodology to collect and record intangible resources, such as festivals and community stories, will be finalized later and potentially draw from methodologies developed by bodies such as UNESCO for their Intangible Cultural Heritage lists.

Following the initial phase of documenting the physical buildings in the commercial corridors, Smith said her team will later return to survey the rest of the cultural districts as well as seek out information on intangible resources.

Smith laid out some next steps for the project. She said the Community Stories Workflow, now called the Community Stories Form, will help collect intangible resources about the neighborhood.

The city will preview the form during a mini-workshop to the Japantown community Sept. 18. The city will also work to discuss a community driven research project and continue to refine the draft findings for the first phase of the survey with feedback from the community ahead of a November presentation to the San Francisco Historic Preservation Commission. The team will also continue their work on surveying other neighborhood commercial districts.

“I’m super excited about this opportunity to really bring to light some of the invisible and forgotten history in Japantown,” Emily Murase, executive director of the Japantown Task Force said.

The S.F. Survey project team will hold a “Japantown Experts Meeting” Sept. 18 and will feature a pilot introduction to the “Community Stories Form.” Registration for this meeting will be capped at 25 people due to space limitations. Visit https://sfsurvey_jtownexperts.eventbrite.com to register.

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