By GWEN MURANAKA, Rafu English Editor-in-Chief
The Metropolitan Transportation Authority (Metro) Board of Directors voted on Thursday to postpone the closure of the Little Tokyo/Arts District Station and streets in Little Tokyo that was to begin on Friday evening.
The delay in construction to early January was finalized in a written agreement on Thursday between the transit agency and the Little Tokyo Business Association that states that LTBA will not file a court challenge to the January closures.
The board action capped off a week of frenzied activity in Little Tokyo, as local business and community leaders scrambled to halt Metro’s plans to shut down the rail station and implement closures on First and Alameda at the start of the peak holiday season.
Metro CEO Phil Washington at a meeting at the Japanese American National Museum on Monday explained that the decision to move construction to December was designed to complete all work in the Little Tokyo area in time for the scheduled March 5, 2016 opening of the Metro Gold Line Foothill extension, giving the region a fully functional light rail system from Azusa to East Los Angeles. Also, Metro looked to take advantage of construction efficiencies to prevent future cost increases due to the unanticipated replacement of an old 36-inch water-line pipe at First and Alameda.
At the JANM meeting, Ellen Endo, LTBA president, stated that the accelerated construction schedule was unacceptable.
On Wednesday, LTBA, which represents businesses in Little Tokyo, served Metro with an ex parte notice seeking to enjoin Metro from starting construction activities prior to Jan. 2, 2016. A hearing on the motion had been set for Friday morning in Los Angeles Superior Court. The Jan. 2 date had been suggested by Little Tokyo representatives at a meeting on Monday with Metro staff, since it would not conflict with the Christmas or Oshogatsu holidays.
On Thursday, the Metro Board listened to presentations by staff and also brief comments by Little Tokyo community leaders, before going into closed executive session. After the closed session, the board came back with the decision to postpone the start of construction.
Under the agreement, Metro will begin work in early January on excavating the intersection of First and Alameda to prepare for the arrival of a tunnel boring machine to build the underground Regional Connector, which is expected to take three months. The Little Tokyo/Arts District Gold Line Station will be closed during construction and there will be multiple street closures and detours.
“We honor and respect the fact that this time of year is a culturally significant season for those who live and work in Little Tokyo,” Supervisor Hilda Solis, who sits on the Metro board, said in a statement.
Mitigation measures, which were announced earlier, will be implemented during the construction period. Metro will provide a free Little Tokyo/Arts District shuttle with four stops that will move people on a set route seven days per week from 10 a.m. to midnight.
In addition, Metro will sponsor a parking validation program encouraging drivers to come into Little Tokyo to explore the destination. The program provides two hours of free parking at three locations along the shuttle route.
Metro has also created a Business Interruption Fund (BIF) to help business owners who have been impacted by construction activity. Additional BIF counselors are being assigned to help owners with applications and payments will be expedited.
Metro also supplies marketing support through the Little Tokyo Community Council and the campaign Go Little Tokyo (golittletokyo.com), encouraging the public to explore Little Tokyo as a destination.
“It is vital to mitigate potential impacts that construction will have on the Little Tokyo business community during the busy holiday shopping season, which accounts for a significant amount of their annual revenue,” county Supervisor Michael Antonovich said.
“We appreciate the business community bringing this matter to our attention so we could provide solutions to the problem,” Antonovich said.
Brian Kito, owner of Fugetsu-Do Confectionery, addressed the board representing Little Tokyo’s mom-and-pop businesses, Speaking afterwards, he expressed relief at the board’s decision.
“I’m glad it was all taken care of. I’m glad the board made the right decision and supported us,” Kito said. “We have a long haul. It’s going to be years of construction. It was very important to establish this yesterday. Hopefully they know where we’re coming from now.
“We’ve been working so well with Metro to this point, we didn’t want to jeopardize our working relationship. If the closures had gone into effect, it would have created distrust. By the board going along with us, it solidifies our trust and working relationship.”
Representatives from Little Tokyo non-profit organizations and businesses attended the Metro board meeting. Kito said that the postponement was an example of the community coming together.
In a letter to Metro last week, the Little Tokyo Community Council added its opposition and asked the transit authority to reconsider its decision.
“LTCC was surprised that Metro did not first inquire directly with the representatives of Little Tokyo to assess whether the change in the construction schedule would be problematical for the local businesses (which it is),” the letter said. “Unilateral decisions such as this one damage the relationship between our community and Metro. The Regional Connector construction schedule runs at least until 2020 and it is vital that the relationship with the Metro staff be open and credible.
“It took everyone in the community to work on this — LTBA, LTCC, individual businesses. It’s gratifying that a good thing came out of this. It’s heartwarming to know that in a bind the community will pull together and support each other,” Kito said.
Endo and Kito met with Metro staff on Friday to go over the agreement.
“We’re optimistic that we can move forward with Metro and Regional Connector with a greater respect for each other, and a united objective to work towards the betterment of Little Tokyo,” Endo said.