Metro Committee Backs Fully Underground Regional Connector

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Jun Soo of the Little Tokyo Service Center, accompanied by several senior residents of Little Tokyo, speaks at the Oct. 20 Metro meeting about the proposed regional connector. Soo said many residents have environmental concerns and want multilingual signs and adequate handicap access. (MIKEY HIRANO CULROSS/Rafu Shimpo)

By MIKEY HIRANO CULROSS
Rafu Staff writer

The Planning and Programming Committee of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority voted Wednesday to approve recommendations for the regional connector transit corridor, which would connect the Gold Line with the Blue and Expo lines via Little Tokyo and other downtown areas.

Without objection, the five-member committee forwarded their recommendations to the full Metro Board, which will vote on them on Oct. 28.

The committee accepted the project’s draft  environmental impact statement/environmental impact report, as well as the fully underground construction option as the locally preferred alternative.

The Regional Connector, expected to begin construction as early as 2014 and open for service around 2019, would run via Second Street and under First and Alameda Streets, connecting the Little Tokyo Gold Line Station with the 7th/Metro hub, where the Blue and Red Lines intersect. The projected cost was estimated in 2009 at $1.245 billion, with eventual totals possibly reaching $1.442 billion.

The meeting also allotted time for public comment, which laid bare some fundamental disagreements within the Little Tokyo community over the proposed transit project. Previous meetings had welcomed public input, but this was the first gathering in which both sides of the issues were strongly represented.

The Little Tokyo Business Association and Little Tokyo Business Improvement District are at odds over the plans with groups that include the Little Tokyo Community Council and the Pacific Southwest division of the Japanese American Citizens’ League. The LTBA and LTBID represent local business and restaurant owners, many of whom speak primarily Japanese, whereas the LTCC and JACL members are mostly English speakers.

In several previous public comment meetings, including one on Sept. 28, nearly unanimous support was expressed for the fully-underground plan for the connector. Feeling that their opinions had not been adequately heard, the LTBA and LTBID quickly arranged forums to express their concerns on Oct. 5 and 13.

At this week’s gathering, opinions on both sides of the issue were passionately delivered to the committee members, who appeared unmoved by either viewpoint.

Kristin Fukushima, public policy coordinator of the district office of the JACL, echoed an oft repeated sentiment that the fully underground plan is the only acceptable option, but that great care should be  taken to ensure the preservation of Little Tokyo’s business and character.

“The other two build options are completely unacceptable,” Fukushima said. “They are injurious, they would be damaging to the community and have the potential for Little Tokyo to be lost forever.”

In calling for compensation for the local retailers and restaurants, she added, “Our businesses are a pillar in Little Tokyo’s community and character. We can’t lose those.”

Kouraku restaurant owner Hiroshi Yamauchi said he wants no construction to take place on Second Street, where his business has been located for more than 20 years.

“We are not opposed to subway construction,” Yamauchi said. “Our objection is only to the fully underground plan under Second Street because we will suffer too much and there is no good news to help us understand. Please consider another route.”

Wilson Liu, president of the LTBID, insisted that Metro has not adequately considered the impact that construction will have on the Little Tokyo community. He cited the survey LTBID conducted of more than 1,200 stakeholders in Little Tokyo that supports a no-build alternative.

Several speakers indicated their satisfaction with the communication between Metro and the Little Tokyo community as the project moves forward.

Chris Aihara, a former LTCC chairperson, said the group has been working with Metro in the two years since the project was first announced, to address concerns about the impact on historic Little Tokyo. She said the LTCC–representing some 100 non-profits, businesses, churches and temples–supports the fully underground plan and hopes to continue to be involved with the proposed connector project.

LTCC board member Jeff Liu called the local disagreement an incredibly emotional issue for residents and businesses, but insisted that the project is an investment in Little Tokyo’s future prosperity.

“Metro staff has been working closely with the council for the past year and a half on a viable solution–the locally preferred, fully underground option, that will help lead the city’s rail system and remain sensitive to one of the nation’s last remaining historic Japanese American communities.”

Comment also came from outside the immediate Little Tokyo area, including input on the plan’s proposal to remove the station and Fifth and Flower, and the impact the project will have on access to employee parking at the Los Angeles Times.

JoAnn Grace, owner of the Metropolitan News and its historic building on Spring and Second, called the draft EIS/EIR “defective,” and that it proceeds on notion her company is a restaurant.
“Restaurants can be quickly moved. A newspaper company, with a seven-unit press in the basement, cannot be,” Grace asserted.

Though the period for public comment officially closed on Oct. 18, the committee has continued to hear input from community members, including at a session held Thursday. When the Metro Board takes up the recommendations for a vote on Oct. 28, public comments will again be taken into the public record.

Rafu Japanese staff writer Ryoko Nakamura contributed to this story.

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