Organizers hold third open house for Osaka Way project

PREFERRED DESIGN DIRECTION — A bird’s-eye view of the potential renovation of Osaka Way, also known as Buchanan Mall, based on community feedback. image courtesy of San Francisco Public Works

More than two years on, the Osaka Way/Buchanan Mall renovation project has reached a major milestone with city planners releasing a preferred design direction.

The city now moves into the detailed design phase in the effort to renovate the pedestrian mall.

The Japantown Task Force, in partnership with the Nihonmachi Parking Corporation and the Japantown Commercial Benefit District, held the third public open house on the renovation project with the San Francisco Planning Department and Department of Public Works Feb. 6. Around 80 people attended. The city proposed a new design for the Osaka Way pedestrian mall based on feedback building from the previous two open house presentations, as well as feedback from other meetings and a questionnaire.

The renovation project has been in the works for some time, first identified as a priority in the 2013 Japantown Cultural Heritage and Economic Sustainability Strategy. At the center of the project are two malfunctioning fountains designed by the late sculptor Ruth Asawa and the accompanying cobblestone river flowing down the middle of the pedestrian mall. Community members want to see the fountains fixed and to address the tripping hazard the cobblestones present, especially as the walkway now hosts outdoor dining areas for the restaurants located along the mall.

Winnie Chang, a landscape architect with the Department of Public Works, walked the meeting through the proposed design, including the addition of accessible seating and wider pathways to meet ADA accessibility standards. The cobblestones, along with the rest of the pedestrian mall, will be torn out to be regraded, as well to meet accessibility standards. However, the cobblestone river will be mapped out and reproduced with a flat, more-walkable surface with the possibility of reusing the original cobblestones if they can be shaved down flat.

Additionally, organizers plan to plant ginkgo trees and situate bigger planters to give the cherry blossom trees deeper soil, as well as add more greenery in the space.

Organizers also propose adding additional seating and benches, as well as preserving the concrete and wood benches currently located along the mall. Chang asked the meeting attendees for their preferences regarding adding overhead lights along the corridor.

Most community members seemed generally supportive of the design. While organizers proposed more radical changes during the second open house, the preferred design concept maintains much of the existing look and feel of the pedestrian mall. Still, some felt concerns over the changes.

Mary Ishisaki expressed concern over the plan electing to plant ginkgo trees when many of the property owners along the mall, including her late husband, had donated money to plant cherry blossom trees. Masako Takahashi, another concerned community member, expressed the new design makes “arbitrary changes that aren’t necessary,” such as the relocation of the existing benches.

Both Chang and Trent Tieger, the project manager from Public Works, acknowledged the plaques denoting the cherry blossom trees planted along Osaka Way and assured attendees that the ginkgo trees would be planted in addition to the sakura, rather than as a replacement. Though, Tieger did note that there is a risk involved in moving the existing trees into a nursery while the construction occurs.

Above all, the community said they want to see the fountains repaired. The city has been working closely with the JTF, NPC and JCBD, as well as the Asawa family estate. Henry Weverka, president of Ruth Asawa Lanier, Inc., spoke on behalf of his family to announce that they are “generally supportive of the renovation project.”

“It is our understanding that the current design proposals are far from final, and that Asawa’s cobblestone design will be mapped out prior to removal and replaced in a way that they are replaced as it was, in a way that is ADA accessible with cobblestone, or very similar material,” Weverka said. “It’s also our understanding that the existing wooden benches with the concrete panel bench ends, and the cobblestone seating surrounding the fountains, will remain with slight adjustments to the cobblestone seating, to make them ADA accessible. Most importantly, for our family, the fountains will be returned to working order and the water will flow again, in consultation with fountain experts.”

Tieger told the Nichi Bei News that the final design of the project will likely remain fairly similar to the preferred design concept thanks to robust community outreach during the planning phase.

“I think one of the big ways to keep towards this is that, it’s a pretty simple concept where we’re also preserving what’s out there. We’re keeping the cobblestone river. The fountains aren’t moving, we’re just repairing them.”

The final design, however, will also rely on a historic research evaluation to detail what exactly must be preserved and how. The detailed design phase, including the approval process with the Planning Department, will take around a year and construction is slated for 2025, according to project leaders.

While the design of the project moves forward, other concerns remain top of mind for the community, namely construction mitigation issues as well as the maintenance of the pedestrian mall after the renovation is done.

Tieger noted the city is looking at how the project could be split into sections to mitigate the construction impacts and said the city is continuing to work with the NPC and JCBD to figure out a maintenance plan. Osaka Way, according to Tieger, is an “unaccepted street,” where the maintenance falls on property owners rather than the city. Additionally, Tieger noted the $5 million secured through California Assemblymember Phil Ting’s office is a capital improvements grant, meaning the money cannot be saved for future maintenance. Tieger said the city intends to continue working with the two organizations who will maintain Osaka Way to ensure both the fountains and planters can be maintained by the two entities.

“I think what’s top of mind for most of us is, the design process seems to have gone very smoothly, with really robust community engagement, but once it’s done, then what,” Glynis Nakahara, president of the JTF board of directors, said to the Nichi Bei News. “The maintenance of it, long-term, is a big concern. And part of our responsibility is, once the project is completed, it’s maintained and it’s not left to disintegrate, like with the Asawa fountains in the first place.”

For more information on the Osaka Way project, visit sfplanning.org/project/japantown-osaka-waybuchanan-mall-improvements.

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