Suggestions flow for two proposed designs of Osaka Way

A mock-up of the Osaka Way’s Option 1: Kanso

Potential Renovations ­— San Francisco Planning and Department of Public Works staff unveiled two concepts for Osaka Way Oct. 3. Pictured above is Opton 1: Kanso. courtesy of San Francisco Planning and Department of Public Works

Ruth Asawa’s public art remains central to the Japantown Osaka Way Upgrades Project as the city pledged to get the late artist’s fountains running again.

City staff, along with representatives of the Japantown Task Force, Japantown Community Benefit District and the Nihonmachi Parking Corporation, held an open house meeting Oct. 3 at the Japanese Cultural and Community Center of Northern California to around three dozen people, as well as more joining via Zoom to present two potential directions for the renovation of San Francisco’s Japantown’s main commercial thoroughfare.

Osaka Way, officially renamed in 2007 from Buchanan Mall, was built in the 1970s and features two fountains designed by renown San Francisco-based Japanese American artist Ruth Asawa. Asawa’s work also includes a cobblestone river that cuts through the middle of the pedestrian mall and cast concrete bench ends on the benches throughout the block. While the fountains were recast in bronze to better preserve them, they have not functioned as fountains in years.

Repairing the fountains remains the priority for many in the Japantown community, especially the late artist’s family.

“(My family comes to) clean the fountains every couple of months, and each and every time we do it, I put the hose on the top of the fountain to allow them to run as intended for about five minutes. And without fail, some community members generally stops us and says, ‘Wow, you know, I’ve never seen these fountains run, and I can’t wait for the day they run again,’” Henry Weverka, Asawa’s grandson and estate manager, said during the meeting.

“Ultimately, from our estate’s perspective, in addition to increasing the accessibility and making it an enjoyable space for the community members, it’s preserving our mother and grandmother’s pieces here on Osaka Way.”

Patrick Race, senior landscape architect and planner with San Francisco Planning, said the city has been working with community partners to meet with Japantown community members since their first May 31 open house to discuss the project. The city contacted youth, seniors and merchants to hear their hopes and concerns with a year-long construction phase that is planned to start in 2025 and overlap with the Peace Plaza renovation, which will start across the street on Post Street the year before.

“There were two merchant focus groups. One in person, one online. First discussions about how the upgrade will impact and benefit their businesses and then initial discussions to discuss construction mitigation, which we hear loud and clear is a very important component of the project,” Race said.

Design-wise, the city took in calls for more trees, seating and dining areas, and concerns over the existing cobblestone river that lies in the middle of the pedestrian mall. Community members had for years expressed concerns over the potential tripping hazards the stones posed and called for their replacement. The city, in its two proposals, suggested either planing the existing stones down flat or replacing them altogether with pavers. Weverka noted the cobblestone river was an integral part of Asawa’s installation and called for the river motif to remain in the mall, along with the concrete bench ends.

The city presented two potential designs: Kanso (簡素), or ‘Simplicity,’ takes a more conservative approach that makes minimal changes to Osaka Way while using city-standard materials and furnishing; Datsuzoku (脱俗), or ‘Unbounded by convention,’ takes on a more creative reinterpretation of the pedestrian mall by adding new features like waist-height standing bar tables, ginkgo trees, and doing away with the cobblestone in favor of aggregate paving to represent the “river.” Both projects would be ADA compliant and cost around the same.

The Nichi Bei News previously reported the renovation, made possible by a $5 million grant from the state of California through Assemblyman Phil Ting, is estimated to cost around $7 million in total. The city is hoping to raise additional funds from either the San Francisco County Transportation Authority or the city’s general fund.

Potential Renovations ­— San Francisco Planning and Department of Public Works staff unveiled two concepts for Osaka Way Oct. 3. Pictured above is Option 2: Datsuzoku. courtesy of San Francisco Planning and Department of Public Works

“It’s not either one or the other, there’s a lot of opportunity to mix and match. So we really want to hear from you today what elements that you like, what you’d like to see, even if it’s not part of either of them,” Race said.

Overall, the meeting attendees, including representatives of Asawa’s family, expressed approval of both proposed designs. Several community members said they preferred the more aggressively redesigned “Datsuzoku” design over “Kanso,” however, cost remains a concern for some as well.

“I want to be realistic with people here about the maintenance agreement that is yet to be negotiated,” said Robert Sakai, a board member of the Nihonmachi Parking Corporation and the Japantown Community Benefit District. “The NPC has a bare bones maintenance agreement, which was signed 20-30 years ago, and it covers just bare maintenance and the replacement of lighting. That’s it. And so, I just want to add a little bit of — I’m sorry, maybe negativity to all this — a lot of this stuff, particularly when we’re talking about maintaining agreements, funding is going to be difficult to find. …

Unless there will be more people willing to, organizations, to come in to provide this maintenance.”

The San Francisco Planning Department and Department of Public Works is seeking comments on the proposed designs of the Osaka Way renovation.

Plans, a recording of the Oct. 3 meeting and a link to submit comments can be found at https://SFPlanning.org/JapantownOsakaWay.

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