Peace Plaza construction and planning continues as merchants remain concerned

San Francisco Japantown’s Peace Plaza. photo by Tomo Hirai/Nichi Bei News

The initial demolition of the San Francisco Japantown Peace Plaza has started as the trees and old tiling are removed.

While community leaders had hoped to save the cherry blossom trees, the city deemed most of them too diseased and their roots too intertwined.

Meanwhile, the planned week-long closures of the two mall entrances leading to the plaza have been delayed pending permits the contractor must secure, but Marien Coss, San Francisco Recreation and Parks Department project manager, said everything was “on schedule” at the May 28 Japantown Task Force Peace Plaza Committee.

Merchants and community members, however continued to express concern with the renovation’s mitigation efforts as wayfinding signage and banners for the “Yes We’re Open” campaign have yet to go up on the fencing surrounding the construction site.

Coss said the contractor is currently “stabilizing” the site and will put up additional signage on the fence before the city will know what space is available for stakeholders to address the mitigation efforts. In the meantime, Grace Horikiri, executive director of the Japantown Community Benefit District, had also ordered banners, but Rich Hashimoto, co-chair of the Peace Plaza committee said the printer she contracted wasn’t a city-approved vendor, delaying the process. Coss said she is going through the city process to print the banners, but it would still take some two to three weeks for them to go up.

While mitigation efforts are ongoing, Japan Center merchants’ observations have been mixed.

Tom Yamashita, co-owner of Miseki Jewelry, told the Nichi Bei News the construction has not negatively impacted his business in the West Mall much. If anything, foot traffic is up in his portion of the mall.

“It hasn’t changed a bit. If anything, because there’s no more seating space on the Peace Plaza, more people have come inside to sit down. So there’s now more people inside the mall,” he said in Japanese.

Greg Viloria, director of community affairs and marketing, said during the March 11 Japantown Task Force Ad Hoc Japan Center Malls committee meeting, he expected as much. He said the foot traffic in the West Mall was healthy enough, but he was much more concerned with the less busy East Mall located across the plaza.

Abby Szeto, manager at Daiso next to the East Mall’s main entrance, said construction had not impacted her store much thus far, but she expressed concern for when the mall’s main entrance will be shut down for a week. During the East Mall’s entrance closure, customers will be rerouted up the hill to an entrance on the second floor inside the Hotel Kabuki’s parking lot with additional potential access from the KOHO Creative Hub space located in the former Ichiban Kan space.

Zak Mai, owner of OK Marketplace, said his monthly weekend vintage market events have been impacted after holding his first event May 11 and 12. He said he saw only a quarter of the people he normally sees while holding an event, although he said the reports of a man with a knife in the West Mall on May 12 also complicated things.

“It was definitely surprising how much the construction affected the foot traffic,” Mai told the Nichi Bei News in an e-mail. “We had anticipated a loss in crowds, but this loss was quite surprising … As construction continues and we navigate different approaches to how we can get folks inside the venue, I hope that we are able to post more signage and get more folks inside East Mall as time progresses.”

While the signage is still pending, Coss asked the Peace Plaza meeting attendees to report any vandalism to signs or the fence to 311. Coss said the contractor is obligated to fix issues within 24 hours of a report.

As construction continues, two aspects of the renovation remains to be finalized.

During the April Peace Plaza Committee meeting, Coss said she would pursue a design change to add a second set of stairs to the Geary Boulevard side of the plaza. She updated the committee that the plan received both civic design approval and the planning department’s approval. She said she is seeking approval from the federal government as the project uses city, state and federal funding.

Meanwhile, the Japantown Task Force’s Cultural Heritage Sustainability Committee continues to work on both the plaza’s information plaques and a commemorative plaque dedicated to the eternal flame.

The flame, originally an open flame donated from Japan, was deemed no longer tenable for safety reasons and proposed to be replaced by a plaque.

Gary Barbaree, co-chair of the CHSC committee, said the informational panel dedicated to the plaza and pagoda was mostly finished. However, the eternal flame panel continues to solicit a contemporary poem to feature.

Initially, the city proposal pitched a poem by Sojo Henjo, but since the poem held no significance to the eternal flame, Barbaree said he hoped to either use a poem about the flame composed by Kobo Daishi, the founder of the Shingon sect of Buddhism who first lit the eternal flame in 806, or a contemporary poem. Barbaree said, in consulting with Bishop Yuju Matsumoto of the Koyasan Beikoku Betsuin of Los Angeles, he learned that the poem they had been considering was not related to the eternal flame either. In working on the poem with the committee and consulting some 52 people, he developed a new poem that speaks to the Peace Plaza’s eternal flame and a message of peace inspired by Kobo Daishi’s original poem. Barabree said he hoped both the original ancient Japanese poem and the contemporary poem would be printed on the plaque, allong with the kanji for “peace.”

“The poem that I wrote had a lot of people improve it with suggestions, but it’s not referring to Kobo Daishi sitting in meditation, it’s referring to people walking up to the eternal flame plaque and beginning to meditate about the meaning of that plaque,” Barbaree said during the May 15 Japantown Task Force’s board meeting.

While Barbaree’s proposal currently includes his poem, he said he would prefer to have a contemporary poem by an Asian American author. He reported during the May 15 board meeting that he has reached out to Sansei poet Brandon Shimoda, who is working on a poetry anthology by Nikkei poets. Barbaree hopes that one of the contributors from the anthology would be willing to submit a poem instead.

“They’ve responded and said they would help to solicit, appeal for two poems,” Barbaree said during the May 28 Peace Plaza Committee meeting. “We do not want to submit only one poem, and there’s a preference in the committee for a contemporary poem, if we can find one.”

Melissa Bailey Nihei, who helped compose the text on the panels and Coss agreed to work on the contents of the panel through the end of June.

As the Peace Plaza renovations continue, the Peace Plaza Committee continues to be the public forum for project leaders to hear community concerns and provide updates. Meetings are held on the fourth Tuesday of every month unless noted otherwise. The next meeting will be June 25 at 5 p.m. held over Zoom. For more information, contact the Japantown Task Force at


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