LITTLE TOKYO, INC: The Metro Regional Connector and the Decline and Fall of Little Tokyo

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jon kajiBy JONATHAN KAJI

On Tuesday, Sept. 30, the Los Angeles County Metro held a groundbreaking ceremony for the $1.4 billion Regional Connector project. Our own George Takei was the master of ceremonies for the event, witnessed by dignitaries from Washington, D.C., Sacramento and City Hall, corporate and labor executives and the local community.

For those who have recently visited the Little Tokyo and Arts District area, tremendous changes are in evidence. The Avalon Bay and Sares Regis mixed-use projects on the former Block 8 lot located south of Weller Court and west of the JACCC will deliver more than 500 new apartment units to the burgeoning residential market.

Further east and located south of the First Street bridge, the $160 million, 438-unit One Santa Fe project recently opened. Under construction is a new $100 million, 328-unit condominium project being jointly built by Lowe Enterprise of Brentwood and Megatoys, across from Maryknoll.

regional connector-savoy

The Savoy condominium complex can be seen at the groundbreaking ceremony for the Regional Connector on Tuesday. Will the Little Tokyo community benefit from the influx in development that will come with the Regional Connector? (Photo by GWEN MURANAKA/Rafu Shimpo)

To a casual observer, one would think that this multi-billion-dollar influx of new infrastructure and real estate development has created a welcomed surge of new wealth into the local Japanese American community. But, has it?

During the battle with Metro over the routing of the Regional Connector, the Little Tokyo Community Council was successful in its efforts to ensure that the project would be fully underground. Securing the support of the late Sen. Dan Inouye as chairman of the Appropriations Committee, plus the promise of additional federal funds, made an underground station a reality.

However, did the Little Tokyo community really benefit from its efforts?

I’m curious as to whether any Little Tokyo, Japanese American or Asian American firms are included in any aspect of the $1.4 billion Regional Connector contract. Is there a required and government-mandated “set-aside” for minority, disabled, or women-owned firms? Are any local firms providing a portion of the project insurance? Construction contracts? Landscaping? Donuts and coffee?

We’ve seen a few token exhibitions of community support by the revolving door of new corporate citizens to Little Tokyo such as serving as a sponsor for an annual non-profit dinner or in-kind donations. Some of the real estate projects have taken on Japanese names. Sakura Crossing, Mura, or Hikari come to mind.

Is that “it”?

It would be rather dismal to think that the Little Tokyo community has worked so hard, only to be left holding the bag and opening the door for others to financially benefit from the Regional Connector project, or all the real estate projects ongoing and scheduled for Little Tokyo. Or, as one of my real estate friends stated rather bluntly, “Your community is nice; however, are you people THAT naive?”

Is it that we haven’t rid ourselves of the “enryo” reflex, fail to speak up or demand fair and equal representation at the bargaining table? Is it the role of the Little Tokyo Community Council to demand that every project creates a steady flow of jobs and that it benefits Little Tokyo?

Would new jobs and deal-flow help to attract those Yonsei and Gosei back into Little Tokyo? Absolutely. Is it too late to ensure that any developer that needs Little Tokyo’s approval carve out jobs and contracts? No. However, the commitment to utilize the LTCC as an economic tool for Little Tokyo’s current and future preservation needs to be a basic policy initiative.

It’s time to fully leverage Little Tokyo’s strategic location and the LTCC’s review and approval value to provide the steady influx of revenue to ensure the survival of our for-profit and non-profit institutions. Outright donations, annual dinners, raffles and golf tournaments as significant sources of revenue for our non-profit institutions make no sense as the Japanese American diaspora continues to blur our ethnic and cultural connections.

Japantown preservation must be linked to our ability to demand and secure both jobs and contracts from all who seek to gain from Little Tokyo’s key location. We should take a page from the local African American or Latino community playbook or look at successful urban developers such as Magic Johnson who have leveraged their own ethnic advantage in creating jobs and wealth within their own communities.

The Issei founded Little Tokyo. The Nisei rebuilt Little Tokyo after the war. For the Sansei and Yonsei, what will our legacy be? Will we be able to look back at how the Sansei were able to create a flywheel of economic benefits that will ensure the future of Little Tokyo? Or will our history be relegated to some dusty and forgotten vestiges of a former Nikkei community, cultural monuments of a people that once flourished then disappeared. Shikata ga nai?

Jonathan Kaji is president of Kaji & Associates. He was a member of the President’s Export Council under President George Bush (1990-1992) and served as the director of the State of California Office of Trade and Investment. Opinions and ideas expressed are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo.

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