Asian centers in grip of change : Development spurred in Little Tokyo, Chinatown

Times Staff Writer

An eight-story office tower is nearing completion on East 2nd St. in Little Tokyo. Not far away, a 178-room hotel, called the Sunshine Inn, is being built on East 1st, and a newly completed 167-unit condominium project, on Central Avenue, sold out before it even opened.

Little Tokyo has come a long way from the 1960s, when a small group of Japanese-American businessmen started meeting to determine how to rehabilitate the deteriorating area just south of City Hall, and yet preserve the “spiritual home” of a Japanese-American community spread throughout Southern California.

Little Tokyo has become an area of modern shopping centers, bank and office structures, cultural and community buildings. Most of the squat brick and concrete buildings that characterized its architecture have disappeared. As the downtown area itself has been transformed over the past two decades, so have its two largest ethnic communities, Little Tokyo and Chinatown.

But the two areas have developed in different ways. Little Tokyo, which was designated a “redevelopment” area by the Los Angeles City Council in 1970, grew into an enclave of modern buildings with graceful pedestrian malls largely through the help of the city’s Community Redevelopment Agency. “To encourage developer interest,” Little Tokyo project manager H. Cooke Sunoo said, “the agency assembled parcels of land and sold them back to developers at a lower price to make projects ‘economically feasible.’ ”

Chinatown had no trouble attracting developer interest, and in fact, by the time the 303-acre community became a designated “redevelopment” area in 1980, four two-story shopping centers had sprung up on Broadway and Hill streets by 1985.


Four, five and six-story office buildings were also constructed.

Land prices have grown so that prime commercial properties have quadrupled in value, to an estimated $150 a square foot or more today. Much of this resulted from Chinese investors in Taiwan and Hong Kong;an estimated 10% to 15% of those parcels, local businessmen say, are owned by overseas Chinese.

But since many of the investments were speculative, the future of Chinatown’s commercial development is unclear. Some of these properties never have been developed. Some are used as parking lots, and others are vacant.

Two major projects were announced by local and overseas Chinese investors over a year ago, but construction has not yet begun.

Needs for Housing

One of these is a $22-million mixed-use residential and commercial condominium development on a former school site at Sunset Boulevard and Hill Place. Another is a $50-million venture with a 20-story residential tower, two-story office building and two-level retail mall, slated for a former school site on North Hill Street.

A major challenge of Chinatown’s redevelopment is meeting community needs for housing or better parking facilities despite the high-pricedreal estate market, according to CRA’s Chinatown project manager, Margaret Leo. CRA opened a 16-story senior citizens housing project this year and Leo added, “We’re working on developing a public parking structure, to make an impact in the commercial area.”

In contrast, vacant or undeveloped land is now a rarity in Little Tokyo. Over 15 years of redevelopment there, private investments have totaled about $248 million, while public funds channeled through the city’s Community Redevelopment Agency have amounted to nearly $40 million.

The first major redevelopment project sponsored by CRA, considered the catalyst for the building boom that soon followed in the 68-acre project area, was the $24-million, 448-room New Otani Hotel. It was built by East-West Development Corp., a consortium of 30 Japanese firms, on land acquired by CRA.

Blight to Health

While community-related projects also developed, such as a senior citizens housing project, a Buddhist temple and a community and cultural center, three shopping centers--Honda Plaza, Japanese Village Plaza and Weller Court were completed in 1980.

“It was a blighted area that turned into a healthy area in terms of prospective investments,” said Bruce Kaji, president of Merit Savings & Loan Assn. on 1st Street, and a long-time member of the citizens committee that serves as advisers to the CRA in Little Tokyo.

This year alone, the $14 million, 60,000-square-foot California First Bank building, a $4-million, 33,000-square-foot office structure, and a condominium project (with prices ranging from $70,000 to $150,000) were completed.

On the planning boards are two more hotels and a shopping center.

Housed Drug Plant

“It’s encouraged outside investors, not just Japanese-American,” Kaji said. One such investor is Michael Kamen, president of Mika Co., which is just completing an eight-story office project on East 2nd St.

Known as Brunswig Square, the $20-million, 150,000-square-foot retail and office structure has been expanded from a 55-year-old building that originally housed the Brunswig Drug Co., a former drug manufacturing plant.

Mika Co. also has acquired property across the street to build a 55,000-square-foot shopping center, along with three-story subterranean parking.

In the future, Little Tokyo “could certainly stand more retail areas, and more housing,” said Tosh Terasawa, an architect whose involvement in Little Tokyo’s development dates back 20 years. With all the modern developments, there has also been a strong push among local citizens, he said, in preserving the surviving older buildings along 1st Street from San Pedro Street to Central Avenue.

“It’s the only real part of old Little Tokyo left,” Terasawa said.