By MIKEY HIRANO CULROSS and GWEN MURANAKA
Standing in the same City Council press room where Los Angeles officials, high-powered lawyers and celebrities have spoken, a fifth-grade girl in a basketball uniform gave her opinion on the proposed recreational facility to be built in Little Tokyo.
“I think that would be great,” she said with a broad smile.
Sarah Johnson, a player on the Pasadena Bruins Cheetahs team, took some time off from school Tuesday to join some 40 members of the community and city leaders to witness the L.A. City Council’s vote to grant a long-term ground lease for the Budokan of Los Angeles. The sports and activities complex is slated to be built on Los Angeles Street, between Second and Third, on the edge of Little Tokyo.
“This project has been in people’s minds for a long time,” said Bill Watanabe, president of the Little Tokyo Service Center, the non-profit agency that has been working toward the building of a recreation center for nearly two decades.
The council’s decision marks a historic turning point in the development of the Budokan of Los Angeles, the realization of which has been a goal for many in the Japanese American community since the late 1970s. Under the terms approved, the LTSC was granted a 25-year lease, with an option to renew for another 25 on city-owned land located at 237-249 Los Angeles St. Rent for the property is reported to be the ceremonial sum of one dollar per year, as the 38,000-square-foot facility is expected to generate some $2 million in local tax revenue in the first year alone.
“This is especially sweet because it has taken such a long time,” said Council President Pro Tempore Jan Perry. “This is a day that none of us will forget being a part of.”
The Budokan will contain a four-court gymnasium to host a variety of sports, including basketball, volleyball and martial arts. It is also expected to include a community space and a rooftop garden with a jogging track, and will be able to host special events, tournaments, and other programming. In addition, LTSC is planning to build a 150-space parking structure underneath the facility.
The complex is scheduled to be built in the next four to five years, creating some 130 construction jobs and 20 permanent jobs, according to Watanabe, who used a baseball metaphor to convey how Tuesday’s approval is an important first step:
“I would say, getting to first base is a pretty big hit.”
Before a single shovel of dirt is dug, however, the LTSC must aggressively begin to raise the estimated $20-$22 million that will be needed to bring the project into reality.
Alan Kosaka, the president of the Budokan of Los Angeles, explained that without a site locked in, no official fundraising could be undertaken.
“We’ve had some donors who have been waiting in the wings, but with no lease, nobody wanted to pull the trigger,” Kosaka said, citing recent water damage to the gymnasium at the Roybal Education Complex to illustrate the dire lack of sports facilities in the Downtown area.
“This is more than revitalization of the immediate area,” said Kosaka, whose son is active in basketball and will travel to Japan this summer with the Yonsei 18 exchange program. “We’ve got kids who have never been to Little Tokyo. When I was a kid, we all came here to eat, take part in activities and soak up some Japanese culture. This will serve to bring the younger generation back to Downtown.”
Johnson, who attends school in Pasadena, is among the 10,000 or more who participate in weekly basketball, the sport that is a major point of involvement and bonding for the Japanese American community. She echoed the need for a venue for sports activity, within the context of developing cultural identity.
“In my area, there are lots of Japanese Americans who play basketball, like me. Building the Budokan gym will strengthen the Japanese American community by bringing thousands of families to Little Tokyo in Downtown Los Angeles,” she said.
Johnson also noted that she and her teammates get hungry after games and would likely eat in the local area, a promise that will be key to the facility’s wider success as a magnet to draw visitors to the L.A. metro center. Watanabe hopes that the Budokan will become a permanent home for major martial arts tournaments, which currently have no dedicated venue locally. He cited the example of the International Judo Tournament, which has been held at UC Irvine in years past, and brings an estimated $1 million to local businesses during that weekend alone.
Watanabe also recalled how the idea of a Little Tokyo Recreation Center – the name of the project until being changed in 2009 – was initially met with skepticism as to the reliability of city government. On Tuesday, he was clearly elated and asked Perry if the facility would be suitable for a mayoral inauguration, hinting at Perry’s announced run next year for the city’s top job. She has said that she wanted to push this project through before she becomes encumbered with the rigors of an election campaign.
Watanabe said that nearly $2 million has already been raised for the Budokan, which is now well on its way to fruition.
“For the past few years, it’s been ‘tomorrow’ or ‘someday.’ Now, it’s ‘today,’ it’s for real.”