A Requiem for Community Redevelopment

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The preservation of First Street and construction of institutions such as the Japanese American National Museum and the Japanese American Cultural and Community Center were among the projects assisted by the Community Redevelopment Agency. Community redevelopment agencies are to dissolve statewide on Feb. 1. (MARIO G. REYES/Rafu Shimpo)

By YUKIO KAWARATANI

On Feb. 1, redevelopment died. But instead of a requiem, we should celebrate the life of redevelopment.

Little Tokyo has gained and owes so much of its cultural, social and commercial development and success to this little understood process. Redevelopment facilitated the development of the two marvelous Japanese American National Museum and Japanese American Community and Cultural Center complexes.

Redevelopment also played a significant role in the construction of the quaint Japanese Village Plaza and several other office and retail developments. The Kyoto Grand (New Otani) and Miyako Inn hotels, Buddhist and Christian churches, and several senior and market-rate apartment complexes were constructed.

There has been significant progress made toward Little Tokyo becoming a well-rounded, vibrant urban center of Japanese business, living and culture. It will serve not only the Japanese American community, but also the downtown and greater diversified American communities. A wonderful achievement strongly assisted by redevelopment.

Gov. Jerry Brown, the State Legislature and now the State Supreme Court have decreed that redevelopment end on Feb. 1, 2012. It all started as a state budget cut to try to reduce the state deficit. It has ended as a major financial blow to 400 California cities that have redevelopment agencies and numerous redevelopment projects. Over the past 60 years, redevelopment has been a significant tool favoring cities with powers and funding to achieve many accomplishments.

Since 1949, the Community Redevelopment Agency of the City of Los Angeles (CRA/LA) has been the implementation arm facilitating redevelopment projects throughout the city. Some of the projects include Bunker Hill, Central Business District, Watts, San Pedro, Hollywood, North Hollywood, Chinatown, Little Tokyo, and numerous commercial rehabilitation and housing projects.

Buildings on the north end of Little Tokyo at First and San Pedro streets are demolished in the 1950s to make way for Parker Center. Today that corner is the site of the new John Aiso Parking Lot and plaza dedicated to Rev. Howard Toriumi.

First a little background history: Little Tokyo started at the end of the 19th century, and thrived in the 1930s and early 1940s as the commercial, cultural and social center of the Southern California Japanese American community. It ceased to exist during World War II, when all Japanese Americans were evacuated to concentration camps.

In 1945, Little Tokyo was restarted along First Street and focused on the intersection of San Pedro Street. Within several years, it was thriving again as the focus of the Japanese American community. But in 1953, the city started to acquire and demolish the most intensely developed northwesterly block of Little Tokyo, for the construction of the Parker Center police complex. Suddenly, one quarter of Little Tokyo was demolished and gone.

Then in 1963, Rev. Howard Toriumi of Union Church discovered that the city was already acquiring properties and was planning to demolish all the remaining buildings on the north side of First Street for future Civic Center expansion. The Little Tokyo community became alarmed that the city was already in the process of taking over and demolishing another one quarter of Little Tokyo.

Led by Bruce Kaji, then president of Merit Savings Bank, the business and community leaders organized and prepared their own master plan for the future development of Little Tokyo. With the sympathetic assistance of 9th District City Councilmember Gilbert Lindsay, who loved Little Tokyo, the City Council was convinced to approve the plan “in principle.”

To demonstrate the viability of Little Tokyo’s existence and importance, the leaders of the community encouraged Japanese and Japanese American developers to construct new buildings to further the development of Little Tokyo. Constructed were the 12-story high-rise Sumitomo Bank office building by the Kajima Corporation, the Merit Savings Bank Building, and the 321 Medical Building.

But the Japanese American community and developers did not have the financial resources to make much of an impact on the overall development and improvement of Little Tokyo.

In 1968, they turned for assistance to CRA/LA. There was concern that Little Tokyo not become a clearance to construct big building projects like Bunker Hill. They were assured that CRA/LA was there to help plan and facilitate the orderly redevelopment of Little Tokyo.

All redevelopment decisions and actions would be determined by a Little Tokyo Community Development Advisory Committee composed of community leaders and representatives. An urban planner and community activist named Kango Kunitsugu and an all-Japanese American support staff were hired by CRA/LA to manage the organizing, public information, planning, decision making and implementation of projects.

After a year of the community studying, planning and agreeing on the possible future development of Little Tokyo, the Redevelopment Plan was officially adopted by the City Council in 1970. The Little Tokyo Project boundaries extended from Los Angeles Street on the west to Alameda Street on the east, Third Street on the south, and half a block north of First Street.

The final meeting of the Little Tokyo Community Advisory Council (LTCAC) on Jan. 18. (GWEN MURANAKA/Rafu Shimpo)

At the time, typical Little Tokyo-related uses of retail on the ground floor and storage, office or small hotel units on the upper floors were in small and very old two- to four-story buildings, located primarily along First, Weller and Second streets. In the remainder and majority of the project area, uses were mostly industrial, warehouse, and wholesale operations. They were in older, larger and less intensively used buildings, so there was ample room for the future expansion of Little Tokyo.

In the closer areas of Little Tokyo, the CRA would need to purchase many small buildings and lots, in order to assemble parcels large enough for any kind of new buildings and parking. This assemblage of land issue would become a social and political problem, as although building and property owners could be well compensated, their commercial, apartment, social and even some cultural tenants would be displaced and some relocated outside of Little Tokyo.

Therefore, the highest planning and development priority was placed on facilitating the construction of a new shopping complex for small, displaced retail tenants in Little Tokyo. The Japanese Village Plaza with 22 local business partners was one solution for relocating displaced commercial tenants.

The 300 apartment units in the Little Tokyo Towers government-subsidized senior housing project was constructed to meet the senior, low-income apartment/hotel tenant relocation issue. The Japanese American Community Cultural Center development was subsidized and facilitated to meet the short- and long-term social and cultural needs of the community.

When the Kajima Corporation offered to construct the 22-story, 422-room New Otani Hotel and Gardens, most of the community supported it, because it would create a high-profile westerly anchor and attract more people and business to Little Tokyo. The minority dissenters were highly vocal and aggressively protested, as this was a case where little shop owners, social service and cultural tenants in the Sun Building and small hotel tenants would be displaced to provide land for a big Japan developer.

But despite the protests, the New Otani Hotel and Gardens and later the Weller Court commercial complex were constructed. The hotel was purchased some years ago and renamed the Kyoto Grand. Kyoto Grand was in turn sold in 2011 and will be converted into a Doubletree by Hilton this year.

Over the years, many of the community’s banquets, luncheons, wedding receptions and convention events have been successfully held in the hotel and the large ballroom. The lush rooftop garden has also been a popular spot for tourists, small weddings and other events.

The Japanese American Community and Cultural Center (JACCC) complex was completed in stages between 1980 and 1985. It was heavily assisted by redevelopment. The land was assembled by the purchase of numerous small buildings and parcels, and sold to the JACCC Board for a fraction of the cost. Low-cost loans and grants were also provided.

The Little Tokyo Chamber of Commerce, businesses, organizations, and a community-wide fundraising campaign brought in donations to construct the JACCC building, the Aratani Japan America Theatre, and the JACCC Plaza designed by famous artist/sculptor Isamu Noguchi. The beautiful Japanese garden was designed and constructed by community landscaping and gardening volunteers and partially funded by the James Irvine Foundation.

From left, George Doizaki, Akio Morita and Consul Tomoji Mutoh join in a groundbreaking ceremony for the Japanese American Cultural and Community Center on Oct. 3, 1979. (Toyo Miyatake)

The Japanese American National Museum (JANM) was started in 1992, in the former Nishi Hongwanji Temple at First and Central.  Little Tokyo project manager H. Cooke Sunoo and museum director Bruce Kaji convinced the CRA and the city to lease the building to JANM for $1 per year and to provide $1 million to modify and renovate the building for museum use.

Several years later, the large JANM Pavilion building site and some construction loans and grants were provided by redevelopment. JANM also received a huge donation from a foundation funded by Japanese corporations, and conducted community-wide fundraising campaigns.

Even with the advent of the Little Tokyo Redevelopment Project, the buildings on the north side of First Street remained in jeopardy. They were still in the city’s Civic Center Master Plan for expansion and also legally subject to a 20-foot widening of the north side of First Street under the city’s adopted Master Plan of Highways. The Little Tokyo Redevelopment Plan had to be in conformity with the city’s Master Plans, so it hedged the issue by indicating that the properties on the north side of First Street could be used or developed for either public or commercial use or a combination of both.

The community wanted to keep the buildings and uses on the north side of First Street, so the CRA/LA granted loans and grants for seismic upgrading, building renovations and facade improvements to prolong the life and maintain the use and safety of the buildings. The CRA/LA staff did a historical feasibility analysis of the north side buildings and applied for national historical preservation status.

Subsequently, the buildings on the north side of First Street became the “Little Tokyo Historical District” with national historical preservation status that protected all of them from being significantly modified or torn down. All of the buildings on the north side of First Street were saved and could remain permanently! It was a major victory for the preservation of Little Tokyo and its historic past.

Ample nearby housing resources and an adequate resident population are essential to the viability and activity of any urban commercial center, including Little Tokyo. Housing was made a priority of the Redevelopment Plan.

The Little Tokyo Towers and Miyako Gardens subsidized senior housing, Casa Heiwa and rehabilitated hotel low-income units, plus market-rate condominium and apartment units like Tokyo Villa, Teramachi, Hikari, Sakura Crossing, and more to come, assure a local source of people to live, eat, buy, and enjoy the cultural amenities in Little Tokyo. There are also a large number of housing accommodations and people located east of Alameda Street, within easy walking distance of Little Tokyo.

In addition, there are thousands of people working and living in Downtown Los Angeles who visit Little Tokyo’s restaurants, businesses, and unique cultural facilities and activities. Strategically located and being a uniquely Japanese cultural attraction with a well-rounded infrastructure of facilities and amenities, Little Tokyo will continue to prosper as the commercial, social and cultural focus of the Japanese American community and visitors from downtown, the region and the world.

Can you even imagine what Little Tokyo would be or look like today without redevelopment? In 1970, its core area primarily consisted of one- to four-story, very old, structurally and safety-deficient buildings on small lots. Most of the adjacent land area uses were in manufacturing, wholesaling and warehousing, which required large truck loading areas and surface parking. There were even old railroad spurs curving and winding through the larger block areas.

Without redevelopment, the entire area on the north side of First Street would have been lost to Civic Center expansion. Without the redevelopment powers of condemnation of property and tax increment funding, the land for the JACCC and JANM cultural complexes could not have been assembled and the construction of the buildings could not have been financially assisted.

The same would have been true for the New Otani Hotel, Weller Court, Japanese Village Plaza, office and retail projects, churches and temples and the many large housing developments. Indeed, Little Tokyo has been highly fortunate to have embraced redevelopment to help achieve its goal of being the most successful Japantown in the country.

Gov. Brown has been against any attempts to extend redevelopment’s termination beyond Feb. 1, 2012. He has referred to it as redevelopment’s funeral day. Let us not mourn the passing of redevelopment. Let us recall the many accomplishments achieved in Little Tokyo these past 42 years and have a celebration of life for redevelopment.

It was good while it lasted, and the legacy of the partnership between Little Tokyo and redevelopment will extend far into the future.

Yukio Kawaratani served as a planner with CRA/LA  from 1962-1993. He currenty is a member of the Little Tokyo Historical Society.

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