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Little Tokyo Wary of Developer’s Big Plans

Something smelled fishy in Little Tokyo, and it wasn’t the sushi.

Quick and concerted action by a proud and involved community there appears to have located the offense and put it out with the garbage, but it has made local leaders wary about the future planning and design of the area.

The situation once again involved the north side of 1st Street between San Pedro Street and Central Avenue. The community, through petitions, statements and meetings over the years, has made it quite clear it wants the strip preserved.

The block is the last vestige of the original Japanese community downtown and includes the distinctive Hongwanji Buddhist Temple, the Japanese Union Church and a very urban mix of stores with housing above. The total conveys a unique sense of time and place, as well as lending the street an inviting pedestrian scale.

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For these reasons, the community proposed that the block be designated a state and national historic district and the churches be named local landmarks. And it also supported a broader Community Redevelopment Agency proposal for the area, in large part because it specifically called for the preservation of the block’s fronts.

Though the agency succumbed to the mindless need of the city Department of Transportation by agreeing to chop off two feet from the north sidewalk, the plan was a reasonable mix of housing, office and retail development. Most of it was to go behind the 1st Street frontage on city-owned property. “Everything was going well,” recalls Toshikazu Teraswa, president of the Japanese American Cultural and Community Center.

But this spring, the city’s administrative officer took exception to the CRA plan, declaring in a memo to Mayor Tom Bradley that the proposal would not give the city “an adequate return on its assests.”

The terse memo made it sound as if the future of Little Tokyo as a viable community was up for sale to the highest, and not particularly most responsible, bidder--and that the balanced plans developed over two years with maximum citizen input be damned.

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If the city is so concerned with adequate returns in the area, perhaps it should look at the retail and office potential on the north side of 1st Street, between San Pedro and Los Angeles streets. There, an ugly two-level parking lot destroys the street’s frontage, and cuts Little Tokyo off from the Civic Center to the west. It could be a wonderful strip for stores or stalls, especially if the street was narrowed.

The memo was (coincidentally?) issued at about the same time Councilman Gilbert Lindsay was sitting on the community’s proposals for landmark designation while he talked about a marvelous proposal for the area by developer Jerry Snyder.

The proposal included violating the 1st Street frontage, possibly and presumptuously relocating the Temporary Contemporary Museum and developing a mixed-use cluster dominated by high rise office towers.

While possibly satisfying the city’s avarice, the package is not what Little Tokyo, or downtown, needs; certainly not its projected 1 million square feet or so of new offices.

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What the community and the marketplace have been receptive to is more housing, such as the recently completed Tokyo Villa condos. The attractive, 128-unit project is the most successful housing downtown, in large part because of its location adjacent to the restaurants, stores, community facilities and cultural attractions of Little Tokyo.

The real value of Little Tokyo is that it is just the type of thriving, mixed-residential and commercial community that needs to be reinforced to give downtown balance, color and vitality.

But it is just that ambiance an over-scaled commercial project as outlined by Snyder would destroy, and what the city administrator’s office does not seem to be able to calculate in its financial projections.

Also disturbing to the community was that the city openly touted Snyder’s plan, without even putting out a so-called RFP, a request for a proposal, to give anyone else a chance to come forward, not even from the community. With Lindsay aide Sal Altimirano running interference, the councilman’s office laid out a very nice table for Snyder.

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Therefore, it was no wonder that when the plan was presented at a recent community meeting, it was met with such hostility. With its many fine restaurants featuring seafood, Little Tokyo has a good nose for the condition of fish, no matter how it is wrapped and who is delivering it.

The protests seem to have been very effective. Lindsay has, in the aftermath, reaffirmed his support of the community’s desire to keep the northside frontage intact and its preference for the CRA plan.

Snyder has gone back to the drawing boards to incorporate the community’s concerns, with a spokesperson adding that he will respect the RFP process. And the landmark designations once again are moving forward.

But the course Lindsay laid out has left a lingering odor in Little Tokyo, putting the community very much on the alert to what next might be served.

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Something must be good . . . about the initiative to reduce the commercial development potential adjoining residential areas in Los Angeles, if only judged by the suspicious opposition and the specious arguments welling up against it.

One has to smile at the statement out of the Building Industry Assn. of Southern California that the initiative would affect “100,000 pieces of property without any consideration to those properties under the California Environmental Quality Act.”

And this after the association and its select members for years have fought efforts by local governments and local residents to require under the act environmental impact reports on proposed developments. There is a lot of talk about the effect on properties and little about the effect on people.

There also are the labored attacks on the initiative as a “political ploy” and “elitist,” as if the planning process as now milked by particularly greedy politicians was not “political,” and the decisions concerning developments made in private meetings between council members and lobbyists were not “elitist.”

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The zoning changes called for by the initiative also will not stop development. The initiative just might shift development to more open and needy areas, and also shift to developers the task of proving the worth of particular projects to an affected community.

Instead of local residents having to go through the time, trouble and expense just to find out what is planned over their fences and down the streets, it will be up to the developers and their friends downtown to demonstrate their good will. That would be a welcome change in the city’s planning process.

For those interested in delving more into the initiative, the Los Angeles Conservancy will be holding an informational forum April 30, at 7:30 p.m. on the fifth floor tea room of the May Co., Wilshire Boulevard and Fairfax Avenue. No tea, or sympathy, will be served.


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