Rafu Staff Report
When the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority (Metro) broke ground for the Regional Connector, Little Tokyo was thrust into a six-year odyssey of transformations, ranging from an increase in the number of new businesses to a string of road closures and Metro service rerouting.
Today, with completion of the 1.9-mile subway system less than two years away, attention is turning to Metro’s Joint Development project set to be constructed adjacent to the new Little Tokyo/Arts District station platform at First Street and Central Avenue.
In mid-March, Metro staff recommended that Santa Ana-based Innovative Housing Opportunities (IHO) be awarded the Joint Development contract. The recommendation drew mixed reactions, principally because it was the only firm out four finalists that didn’t have a previous Little Tokyo relationship, but also because of doubts that a housing project was feasible on the 1.2-acre site.
The Little Tokyo Community Council (LTCC) obtained postponement of the Metro staff’s recommendation to the Planning and Programming Committee, during which IHO would have been considered for the project. The recommendation is now scheduled for October.
Meanwhile, the Little Tokyo Business Association (LTBA), has called into question Metro’s selection process, alleging among other issues that community priorities and concerns articulated by stakeholders were being set aside.
During the virtual LTCC general meeting July 28, IHO Chief Executive Officer Rochelle Mills of IHO and Jirair Garabedian of the Dahlin Group outlined details of their proposal.
“We tried to understand the different layers of history and of culture,” said Garabedian, who went on to reference cultural aspects of the architectural design.
He described a planned alleyway behind the current Office Depot location in the IHO proposal as a yokocho, a word unfamiliar to many in the meeting. Yokocho refers to narrow side streets, where specialty foods and bars can be found by tourists and locals, a sector more likely found in large cities like Tokyo and Osaka.
He also suggested that a terraced structure at First and Alameda streets could be used for community events or possibly as a viewing area during Nisei Week.
“We will be outreaching to the community and one of the areas we will be collaborating on is the commercial tenants, the cultural programming. There are six areas that we asked to be able to work with the community on, and we will be as transparent and collaborative as possible,” Mills assured.
She stressed the importance of a collaborative process in identifying who the tenants and operators, and programming will be for the commercial spaces, a proposed arts center, and affordable housing units.
IHO holds letters of interest from Fatburger and Qwench Juice Bar. When asked to consider how small, independent businesses will be able to compete with such recognizable, national brands, Mills emphasized, “We are fortunate that one of our partners at Western Pacific Housing actually does have, owns franchises there. I want to say that it is critically important that we have a good, strong tenant there for the credit worthiness of the other tenants.”
Mills added, “I can almost guarantee that we will have at least one stable, national tenant so that we can get the credit worthiness necessary to support the other businesses.”
If approved by the Metro board in October, the proposed arrangement between Metro and IHO would commence with an initial term of 18 months, with an option to extend for up to 30 months.
IHO was one of four developers that pitched their proposals for the Joint Development project in October 2019. Their proposal calls for 79 affordable rate apartment units plus 10,000 square feet of ground-floor retail, galleries, and cultural amenities adjacent to the Metro plaza that will serve the Regional Connector.
During Metro’s evaluation/selection process, IHO scored the highest. Other proposals were submitted by the Center Urban Real Estate Partners, Kaji & Associates, and the Little Tokyo Service Center.
With completion of the Regional Connector anticipated in 2022, Little Tokyo leaders are intent on holding Metro and the developer accountable to the community’s original vision expressed during multiple public meetings and visioning sessions. The Regional Connector will ultimately link three different rail lines — Metro Rail A (Blue), E (Expo) Lines at 7th St/Metro Center Station to the current L (Gold) Line and Union Station.
When completed, the project will provide a one-seat ride into the core of Downtown LA for passengers on these lines who currently need to transfer and is projected to reduce or eliminate transfers for many passengers traveling across the region via Downtown.
Yukio Kawaratani, a retired city engineer and community leader, points out the critical significance of the site, where valuable ground floor space will be located next to one of the most important transit stations in Downtown L.A.
“From the very beginning of the process, Metro assured stakeholder input and that the joint development would benefit the needs of the community. Key inputs included: blending in with the culture and character of the community, creating activity with Little Tokyo related businesses, and developers with experience in the community,” observes Kawaratani.
“The IHO proposal does not meet them.”