By GWEN MURANAKA
RAFU ENGLISH EDITOR IN CHIEF
The Los Angeles City Planning Commission on Aug. 8 voted to unanimously approve the Little Tokyo Community Design Overlay District (CDO), a set of guidelines that preserve the neighborhood’s unique character and encourage pedestrian-friendly development in Little Tokyo.
The guidelines, which require city council approval, will replace the oversight put into place by the now-defunct Community Redevelopment Agency that are due to expire in February 2014.
“Little Tokyo CDO is a unique and important policy document that will help maintain protections for cultural heritage and preservation in the Little Tokyo community,” said Tanner Blackmun, planning director, speaking on behalf of Councilmember Jose Huizar.
The commission also heard public testimony on the boundaries for the CDO, which has been a point of contention between Little Tokyo and its neighbors in the Arts District and Skid Row. The Little Tokyo CDO area is bounded by Temple Street to the north, Alameda Street to the east, Third Street to the south, and Los Angeles Street to the west.
Planning commissioners voted to create a compound overlay district for Third Street between San Pedro and Los Angeles streets, that would be considered a joint Little Tokyo and Skid Row CDO, following public comments from Skid Row residents, who felt that their neighborhood was being encroached upon by the new design guidelines.
“We are highly insulted and disrespected by this recommendation report and we greatly oppose this, the reasons being too numerous to summarize in a minute. Lemme just say that it starts off with a CDO and it turns into a land grab,” said General Jeff Page, a Skid Row resident and member of the Downtown Los Angeles Neighborhood Council.
“It is important to have a sense of community and belonging. I am highly in support of maintaining the current boundaries because that is home for the residents of Skid Row, and to support their activities and movements as they see fit,” said Diane Woods, a doctor of public health, who has worked with Skid Row residents.
Estela Lopez, Central City East Association said her organization opposes including the south side of Third Street between Los Angeles and Alameda streets into the Little Tokyo CDO.
“These properties are part of Central City East, they are zoned differently from Little Tokyo, and their inclusion in these guidelines amounts to, in our minds, the taking of property owner rights,” said Lopez. “It’s very important to point out that the original Little Tokyo redevelopment project area did not cover any portion of the south side of Third Street; that helps explain why these design guidelines make no sense for our area. They reflect the goals of a residential and commercial community, while the south side of Third Street however, is entirely industrial.”
In terms of east of Alameda, the commission could take no action to include any of the areas currently outside of the Little Tokyo CDO boundaries. The issue will go next to the city’s Planning and Land Use Management Committee, chaired by Councilmember Huizar.
Over 40 representatives from Little Tokyo attended the meeting, many to express support for including the area east of Alameda into the final document. Nishi Hongwanji Buddhist Temple, Zenshuji Soto Mission, St. Francis Xavier Catholic Center, Hiroshima Kenjinkai and The Rafu Shimpo are among the organizations, outside the current boundaries, that have asked to be included within the Little Tokyo CDO.
“This year, Maryknoll celebrates 100 years of maintaining, servicing and being a part of Little Tokyo, we believe we shouldn’t be excluded from the Little Tokyo neighborhood and community,” said George Campos, a parishioner of St. Francis Xavier Catholic Center.
“For 110 years the newspaper has been generating its publication out of Little Tokyo,” said Chris Komai, speaking on behalf of Komai family and The Rafu Shimpo. “In that same span its entire existence has been in Little Tokyo, for that reason, The Rafu Shimpo endorses the LTCDO but wishes to be included in it.”
“On behalf of the temple board of directors and members, it’s our urgent request that Zenshuji be included in the boundaries of the Little Tokyo CDO,” stated Daigaku Rumme, head priest of Zenshuji Soto Mission. “For nearly 90 years we have been at the same location. Religious institutions are at the heart and soul of a community’s identity and activities. The Little Tokyo community is actively working to realize a future that honors its cultural and historic legacy. We want to be a stakeholder in Little Tokyo’s future by reaffirming our connection and commitment to Little Tokyo.”
Others spoke against including areas to the south of Third Street into the CDO. Nearly a dozen representatives from Skid Row attended the session.
Commission members expressed some support for including parcels to the east of Alameda, including Nishi Hongwanji Buddhist Temple and the Mangrove site, currently a city-owned parking lot, across from the Japanese American National Museum.
During staff testimony, Nick Maricich, a city planner, stated that there had been considerable opposition from the Arts District. No members of the Arts District were in attendance at the meeting.
“There are a number of stakeholders east of Alameda who consider that area to be the Arts District, and expressed significant objection to including any of that area,” noted Maricich,
Diego Cardoso, planning commission member who worked on the Regional Connector project as an executive officer with Metro, expressed support for including Mangrove and Nishi into the CDO boundaries.
“I don’t why this is so complex, that piece right there,” said Cardoso, referring to Mangrove and Nishi. “Two property owners, lots of community input, great historical background. They will be part of whatever happens in the future with those properties. So explain to me why would the Arts District object to including the temple and the property owned by the city?”
Following the meeting, Eric Kurimura, a member of the Nishi board, expressed disappointment that the boundaries could not be finalized.
“I think what happened is what we expected… we’re disappointed that it could not be resolved today, but we’re deeply appreciative of Diego’s [Cardoso] comments… Those things that he said about connected communities, about scale and everything; those are all things that we believe in,” said Kurimura. “One sad thing is that we weren’t able to sit down at the table and have a discussion with the Arts District, because even some of the concessions that related to the boundaries regarding Skid Row, with this term of a compound description for the neighborhood, which can be the Arts District or Skid Row or Little Tokyo [at the same time].”
Jeffs said he was encouraged by the outcome of the planning meeting and felt that the opinions of Skid Row had been heard.
“The commissioners really thought it through and at the end they made a motion that leaves the groundwork for more bridging of the gap between the two communities [Skid Row and Little Tokyo]. As it sits right now, we really have to see what the clear language is, but I think we’re all really pleased with the outcome,” said Jeffs.
— Additional reporting by Alex Kanegawa