Developer Fights Landmark Status for WWII Camp

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Supporters of historic-cultural monument designation for the Tuna Canyon Detention Station site attend a Los Angeles City Council meeting in June. (J.K. YAMAMOTO/Rafu Shimpo)

Rafu Wire and Staff Reports

A developer has taken legal action against the historic-landmark designation for a one-acre plot of oak trees at a former World War II-era internment camp in the San Fernando Valley, according to a lawsuit filed last week.

Developer Snowball West Investments won’t stop installation of some sort of commemoration at the site, but the company wants permission to tear down a golf course and build a 220-unit residential community, according to The Los Angeles Times.

The site is at Verdugo Hills Golf Course, just north of the 210 Freeway in Tujunga, and the historical designation brings extra layers of scrutiny that could make it harder to build homes and roads in the area, according to Fred Gaines, attorney for Snowball.

On June 25, the City Council voted unanimously to honor the former site of the Tuna Canyon Detention Station, part of which is now a one-acre oak grove.

From 1941 to 1943, more than 2,500 “enemy aliens” — Japanese, Japanese Americans, Germans, Italians and Japanese Peruvians — were detained there following Japan’s bombing of Pearl Harbor. They were later transferred to other camps.

The council vote went against the Cultural Heritage Commission’s rejection of the designation earlier this year. In its rejection, the commission noted that none of the camp’s original buildings was still standing. The structures were razed in the 1960s to make way for the golf course.

In the run-up to the June vote, Councilmember Richard Alarcon countered that numerous other sites without original structures have been honored by the commission, including a former Disney Studio site that is now a Gelson’s supermarket.

During the council meeting, two members of the Planning and Land Use Management Committee, Councilmembers Ed Reyes and Mitchell Englander, who had previously held a hearing on the Tuna Canyon issue, attempted to fashion a compromise by limiting the designation to one acre. Old and new aerial photographs showed that the oak grove dates back to the internment period.

Gaines, who spoke at the commission, committee and council meetings, said the decision was rushed because it was Alarcon’s last week in office and the developer doesn’t believe the proper process was followed.

The designation is not needed, according to Gaines, because the developer has planned all along to memorialize the detention center.

“The proposed commemoration site is located in the area that was designated, just not the entire area,” he told The Rafu Shimpo.

Felipe Fuentes, the area’s new councilman, said he supports honoring the history of the area, but wants to find a balanced way to do so.

At the suggestion of commissioners and councilmembers, Tuna Canyon advocates, including local preservation groups and Japanese American community leaders, formed a working group that was in contact with representatives of the developer and the city.

Sunland-Tujunga historian Lloyd Hitt, a member of the Little Landers Historical Society but speaking as an individual, told The Rafu Shimpo: “After two months of negotiations with Snowball West’s architect and occasionally their attorney, Fred Gaines, we thought that the community’s working group had come to a preliminary understanding with the representatives of Snowball West. The site, access, and parking seemed to be worked out and we talked about leases, purchase, and other arrangement for the three-quarter acre.

“As the meeting came to a close, Fred announced: ‘By the way, I have filed a lawsuit against the City of L.A. for an illegal historic-cultural monument for the Tuna Canyon site.’ We were all stunned.

“It seems we have come full circle. Members of the Japanese, Japanese Peruvian, German, and Italian community of over 2,500 were locked up on vague, trumped-up suspicions and without counsel in World War II, and now their children and grandchildren, who are trying to reconnect with their memories and history, will be locked out.

“The developer appears to want the community to settle for no more than a California Parks state marker, which can be placed anywhere and which comes with no strings attached. The marker could easily end up out on the curb with no guarantee of access or recourse to the families of those imprisoned at Tuna Canyon Detention Station or those who want to visit to remember the tragic events that occurred there.

“Unlike the state historic marker, the Los Angeles historic-cultural monument does come with some procedural restrictions that would apply to the monument site much more permanently than the state marker. However, the developer had agreed to the designation when council approved it, and further, the city’s regulations are not inconsistent with the developer’s proposed residential development.”

The Tuna Canyon Detention Station Coalition said in a statement that it “is very disappointed at this filing and considers this lawsuit a distraction from the real purpose of commemorating this historic site so that future generations of Americans do not repeat the mistakes of the past. We call upon Snowball West to drop this lawsuit and to continue to work with the coalition to create an accessible, permanent memorial site worthy of this city and the memory of the tragic events that occurred at this location during World War II.”

The coalition’s mission is “to preserve the stories of the Japanese, Germans, Italians, Japanese Peruvians and others at the Tuna Canyon Detention Station, which was operated by the U.S. Department of Justice during World War II and was located in the City of Los Angeles.”

The following goals have been established:

“To create a welcoming gathering place for people of all ages and origins, especially student groups, that explores the entire history of the Tuna Canyon Detention Station (TCDS) site.

“To establish a dynamic, emotionally engaging, living memorial for the individuals — Japanese, Italian and German immigrants, Japanese Peruvians and others — whose civil liberties were violated at TCDS.

“To present educational programming that connects the site’s history with contemporary life, serves as a somber reminder of the fragility of our democracy, and ensures its relevance for future generations.

“To create an inspirational setting for those detained at the TCDS and their families and give all visitors an opportunity to reflect on the profound significance of the site.

“To construct a well-planned site that ensures access to all people.”

Regarding specific details of the memorial, the coalition envisions the following:

• Public access with directly adjacent parking facilities and amenities for people with disabilities.

• A plaque designating the site’s history.

• Interpretive stations where visitors can make an emotional connection with the TCDS under the canopy of the sycamore and oak trees.

• A wall with the names of the people who were incarcerated in a setting of a Japanese garden as a place for reflection.

• An area featuring stories of those people as well as other museum-type educational materials and guide posts.

• Representational and inspirational artwork to assist in reflection of what occurred at the camp and to promote healing and understanding.

• A mock-up of the camp to remind visitors of the conditions of that era.

• Roadside signage to indicate the site’s historical and cultural importance.

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