By RYOKO NAKAMURA
RAFU JAPANESE STAFF WRITER
“I am a tenant. I own a shop in Little Tokyo. I am very concerned everyday. You are going to dig a hole. It might affect us,” said Yoshinobu Maruyama, the owner of Shabu-Shabu House in the Japanese Village Plaza, at last Wednesday’s meeting regarding Metro’s Regional Connector project.
The Little Tokyo Business Association and the Little Tokyo Business Improvement District rushed to hold the meeting before Monday, Oct. 18, the close of the public comments period on the Draft EIS/ EIR.
About 25 members from LTBA/ LTBID representing each area of Little Tokyo participated in the meeting raising concerns about the impact of construction and showing their support for the no-build option.
Metro proposes an approximately two-mile rail system with Little Tokyo as a juncture that will connect its Gold, Blue, and Expo rail lines, allowing passengers to travel throughout the region without transferring in downtown. At Metro’s Oct. 28 meeting, the Board will choose a locally-approved alternative from four options: no build, at-grade, a partially underground and fully underground.
At the Oct. 13 meeting, Ann Kerman, Metro’s spokesperson for the project, and Ginny Brideau, project manager for The Robert Group, a PR company for Metro, responded to business owners’ questions and concerns.
“You talked to ‘the community,’ but they don’t have a business here. They just have an office. We are a mom-and-pop (business). You have to think about us,” Maruyama said. He emphasized that the owners understood the benefits of the Regional Connector for reducing greenhouse gas emissions and traffic congestion, but asked, “How can I support my employees and their families? We have to survive.”
Several participants at the meeting raised concerns that it was too late to stop the project. “The project will likely move forward, but it’s very important that you remain in the loop. We want to continue this dialogue. We want you to be a part of this,” Brideau answered.
In September 2009, the Metro board identified the Regional Connector and the Wilshire Subway as priority projects in seeking federal “New Starts” funding, a program administered by the Federal Transit Administration to invest in local mass transit projects.
The fully underground alignment was introduced in November 2009 as a response by Metro staff to concerns raised, including opposition by the Little Tokyo Community Council, that the at-grade and partially underground alignments would create a traffic underpass for cars at the junction of First and Alameda streets where trains would pass at street level every few minutes, creating a permanent disruption in Little Tokyo.
Wilson Liu, president of LTBID, pointed out the issue of their delay in speaking out: “Last year was spent on just analyzing an additional alternative, which was fully underground. I think a part of our strategy was to sit back and see how that developed. However, we shouldn’t have done that. We wasted a whole year in terms of allowing just one voice to push for the fully underground (option) and you did not come to us.”
He also emphasized that they were more concerned with the effects of the construction on local businesses. “This is either live or die for us. Hopefully, I see my neighbors here six years from now.”
Kerman understood and acknowledged their concerns and frustrations and promised to work with the business owners throughout the entire process. Due to limitations on federal funding, Metro is unable to guarantee a financial reimbursement at the moment but is committed to finding different ways to assist businesses. “We want to be at the table with you. We want to build the community. We want to make sure that this project will be an asset for you.”
In response to the Draft EIS/ EIR, the Little Tokyo Community Council, which has endorsed the fully underground alternative, sent a letter to the Metro Board on Oct. 16 requesting targeted marketing and financial compensation for local businesses and the creation of a Business Interruption Committee that would work with Metro and Little Tokyo businesses.
LTBID sent out 400 surveys as of Oct. 13 to its members, other business owners, employees, residents, and customers in Little Tokyo to collect more opinions about the project. At the meeting, Liu released the results. Some of the restaurant owners also made copies of the survey and circulated it among their staff and customers.
As of Oct. 13, with 1,034 responses received, the survey found that a majority, 80.69 percent, supported the no-build option, with 89.17 percent of the surveys returned. On the other hand, the fully underground alternative, which has been backed by the majority of participants in Metro’s public hearings, on Sept. 28 and Oct. 4, received only 19.06 percent support, with 53.77 percent of the surveys returned.
LTBID will submit these results along with their official letter of support for the no-build option, to Metro and Jan Perry, a councilwoman representing the Little Tokyo area.
For more information about Metro’s regional connector project, visit www.metro.net/regionalconnector.
—Additional reporting by GWEN MURANAKA