By GWEN MURANAKA
Rafu English Editor-in-Chief
Little Tokyo leaders on Monday urged Metro transit officials to reconsider the closures of the Little Tokyo/Arts District station and street closures on First and Alameda that will commence on Friday evening.
Metro CEO Phil Washington and other senior-level staff from Metro attended the meeting held at the Japanese American National Museum.
The Little Tokyo/Arts District Station will close on Dec. 4 and remain shuttered through February. A free shuttle bus will take riders along the route from Union Station to the Pico Aliso station in Boyle Heights, commencing on Dec. 4. Little Tokyo riders will be picked up and dropped off at Toriumi Plaza at First and Judge John Aiso Street.
Metro officials said they would work with Little Tokyo to mitigate the impacts, including more shuttle buses and adding 21 variable message boards to direct motorists into the neighborhood. A Request for Proposal (RFP) will also be submitted next month for bids on a valet service for the area.
But the transit officials were adamant that the Friday closures must proceed.
Washington, who was selected as Metro CEO in March, said that the March 5 opening of the Gold Line Foothill Extension was among a number of the reasons that Metro recently decided to move the Little Tokyo closures up two months.
“We felt that it would be best to start this work a little bit earlier than originally scheduled. Because the Gold Line that we’re opening on March 5 next year, what we did not want to do was open up that line and then immediately close a portion of it for the work that would have to be done in this area,” Washington said. “Our thought was in order to accelerate the work, to get in here sooner than the first of the year to start this work.”
The approximately three-month closure becomes effective 9 p.m. on Dec. 4 with a weekend full closure on Alameda between Temple and Second streets; and on First Street between Central and Vignes to install K-rail (concrete barrier) and reconfigure traffic lanes. Starting Dec. 7 at 7 a.m., there will be full closure of First Street between Alameda and Central through February 2016 and westbound directional closure of First Street between Alameda and Vignes.
Brian Kito, owner of Fugetsu-Do Confectionery, said that December accounted for 25 percent of his yearly sales. He asked Metro to consider delaying the closures to Jan. 2, after the New Year’s holiday. He also expressed frustration that the community was only notified of the changes within the past month.
“It seems outrageous that we would have to inconvenience this entire community just for the fact that the Azusa extension is open, that it’s going to be fully train only, when you do have a bus bridge that will keep it running. I think that’s a bit disrespectful to our community,” Kito said.
Washington, who was joined by Mike Aparicio, Regional Connector constructor, said that they explored other options to the December closure.
“We’ve looked at every alternative. We know that December is a special month and if we had any other way to do this without impacting December and the Jan. 1 date, we would. But if we start in January, we begin to bump up against impacts to the opening of the Gold Line and it becomes a full regional impact,” Washington stated.
Ellen Endo, president of the Little Tokyo Business Association, stated that the Friday closures were unacceptable.
“Let me cut to the chase. We are not ready to accept the closure of our streets and impeding of traffic flow starting this Friday. It is a critical time. We are asking that it be moved to Jan. 2, that’s one month. In construction terms, that’s a blip,” Endo said.
Another concern raised by Little Tokyo community members was the implementation of the Business Interruption Fund. To date, no grants have been awarded to J-Town businesses from the fund that was established to help small businesses impacted by construction on the Expo and Purple lines and the Regional Connector.
A requirement that businesses must abut or face rail construction sites would disqualify large portions of Little Tokyo from receiving grants. As of September, the fund has awarded 62 grants, totaling more than $1 million.
“That was not the intent of the motion the way it was written,” Joanne Kumamoto, a LTBA member, said. “The intent for Little Tokyo was for the (business interruption fund) to be served for the Little Tokyo area. We were considered an environmental justice community, so rather than just the businesses along the alignment we had broadened their interpretation.”
Washington said that he would personally review the Business Interruption Fund and the original language and intent of the motion.
Hiroshi Yamauchi, owner of Kouraku Restaurant, speaking through an interpreter, said that he had been to many Metro meetings in the past four years, where he had been assured that the Regional Connector was for the betterment of Little Tokyo.
“It seems like we have to swallow a lot of difficulties and I feel very worried. If you really feel this is about the betterment of Little Tokyo, I think you can do better,” Yamauchi said.
Following the meeting, Washington said he had heard the community’s concerns and hoped to come up with a satisfactory solution.
“What we aim to do is work with the community to try and resolve these issues. That’s why we’re here, that’s why I’m here: to work with the community and try to come up with some type of win-win arrangement,” Washington said. “It’s hard to tell what that is right now operationally. This early closure works for the entire region, but we have to be cognizant of the impacts on each and every community.”