Development Plans Refuel Old Political Fires in Little Tokyo

Times Staff Writer

Just last fall, the shopkeepers of 1st Street thought they had waged a final battle over their landmark block of buildings, the last unassuming stretch of proud structures put up by Los Angeles’ original Little Tokyo settlers.

After years spent fighting the block’s would-be destruction, the Little Tokyo community’s stubborn resistance had prodded the city’s redevelopment staff to recommend saving and restoring the storefronts. Also to be saved were two buildings--a church and a Buddhist temple--which anchor the block that the community holds dear.

But Little Tokyo’s single-minded confidence has been shattered by a quicksilver series of political turns.


At the same time the redevelopment staff released its report, a developer was making the rounds at City Hall, talking about taking over the block in which the district sits. The land he was discussing, shop owners learned with surprise, included theirs.

Then Councilman Gilbert Lindsay shocked the community by postponing the scheduled consideration of the city-owned church and temple as city landmarks, thus appearing to come out in favor of demolition.

Even more stunning were two elements of the proposed development. The developer, J. H. Snyder, wanted to tear down the shops and move the historic church out of his way, brick by brick, so he could build a parking garage.

By a potent display of behind-the-scenes political pressure, outraged Little Tokyo shopkeepers in recent days forestalled the plan to demolish their stores, winning the grudging and tentative backing of Lindsay.

But the fate of Union Church is again in limbo, and the people of Little Tokyo are preparing anew for battle. It is a pose they are accustomed to, and one made more poignant by the special note of history that binds them to Union Church. It was to the church that local Japanese-American families returning from World War II relocation camps came, empty-handed, to be referred to new homes where they could start over.

“This is a sense of home here, one way of still having some kind of identity,” said Brian Kito, 28, who runs a bakery his grandfather founded in Little Tokyo in 1903. “If we lost that here, it really gives us just another district, with no sense of what we started from.”


Lindsay has quite another opinion.

“I think they’re making a big mistake,” he said in an interview. “To some degree the property there, the buildings et cetera, do not merit retaining.”

The subject of the dispute, the north side of 1st Street, stands in rustic contrast to the modern structures that dominate redeveloped sections of Little Tokyo.

The brick-faced buildings date as far back as 1882, when Antonin Sperl built a blacksmithing shop on 1st between San Pedro and Central streets--a building now owned by his grandson, Tim Sperl. By 1903, the area had been christened “Little Tokyo” in recognition of its status as the center of the Japanese-American community in Southern California.

The area flourished in the 1920s and 1930s--when most of the buildings rose--and up to World War II, but since then has been slowly carved up by progress.

Destruction Delayed

The north side was formally targeted for destruction in a 1974 community plan, but local protests delayed the action. The unified tactics ultimately led the staff of the Community Redevelopment Agency--the city’s redevelopment arm--to side with restoration proponents, according to H. Cooke Sunoo, the CRA’s Little Tokyo project manager.

In last fall’s report, the CRA staff called for saving the 1st Street shops, the Nishi Hongwanji Buddhist Temple at 1st and Central and the Union Church on San Pedro Street, just north of 1st.

According to the plan, Sunoo said, the privately owned stores along 1st were to return to their early century appearance. The city-owned church and temple, both now vacant pending earthquake improvements, would have been similarly restored.

The development staff plan also recommended moderate development of the 12 city-owned acres that extend north of the private shops to Temple Street. About 600,000 square feet of office space--a third of it reserved for city use--would have been built, along with retail shops and 200 homes.

Optimistic about the area’s survival, the Los Angeles Conservancy, a private preservation group, asked federal and state authorities to list the block on the National Register of Historic Places. A state hearing on the request is scheduled next month. The conservancy also drew up designations of the church and temple as city historic sites for submission to the Cultural Heritage Commission. City Council action is required for approval.

‘Detailed Planning’

Robert D. Volk, chairman of the mayor’s Little Tokyo Community Development Advisory Committee, lauded the “amount of detailed planning” that went into the restoration effort.

“That (such an effort) could be suddenly be thrown over by someone from the outside is inconceivable,” he said.

That someone was developer J. H. (Jerry) Snyder, who late last fall began talking to city officials about the block. Snyder, a builder of successful projects in the Fairfax-West Los Angeles area, learned of the Little Tokyo property from influential City Hall lobbyist H. Randall Stoke, who said in an interview that he has represented Snyder for 15 years.

In January, Snyder invited the CRA’s Sunoo to a meeting where the conversation turned to Little Tokyo. Sunoo recalled that he told Snyder that restoration of the historic buildings was a necessity for any development.

Snyder replied “Oh, yes, I understand that,” Sunoo said. But the developer added that some architectural drawings would exclude the buildings “just to see what it’d be like,” Sunoo said.

Postponement Ordered

Less than two weeks later, Lindsay stunned Little Tokyo leaders by ordering postponement of the Cultural Heritage Commission’s consideration of the church and temple as city historic sites, designations which would have given the sites a measure of protection from destruction.

Community leaders upset by the action had an emotional confrontation with Lindsay in which longtime Lindsay friends from Little Tokyo appealed for his support, participants said.

“He (Lindsay) said ‘Look at what you can have. You can have something as fine as Bunker Hill or you can have a bunch of tacky old buildings,’ ” Volk recalled. But when pressed, Lindsay agreed he would not force demolition on the community.

The shop owners themselves heard nothing from developer Snyder until each received a mailgram inviting them to a steak-and-salmon dinner March 11 at Commodore Perry’s restaurant at the New Otani.

Over dinner, Akira Kawasaki, who owns a building on the north side of Little Tokyo that his father bought in 1932, discussed with lobbyist Stoke the restoration of the historic area.

Revealing Drawing

“He was shaking his head at any mention of restoring our property and when I saw the schematic I saw why,” Kawasaki said.

The schematic map, displayed there and at a Town Hall meeting the following day, showed the razing of virtually every structure. The only building left standing was the Nishi Hongwanji temple.

The old storefronts would have been replaced with a two-story bank of retail outlets. Three office towers housing 1 million square feet of commercial space--more than half again that recommended in the CRA plan--would have risen over the corners of 1st and San Pedro, San Pedro and Alameda and Temple and Alameda. A high-rise apartment development would have loomed over 1st Street and an interior plaza of retail shops.

The historic church, which sits where Snyder’s architect planned a parking structure, would have been moved “brick by brick,” Stoke said, to a new location near the temple.

The development would be leased to Snyder’s firm for about 50 years, then would revert to the city’s control. Stoke estimated that it would give the city a return of $4 million a year, about four times that gained in the restoration plan.

In Line to Protest

The firestorm over Snyder’s proposal struck immediately. At a Town Hall meeting, hundreds of Little Tokyo business owners and residents listened, stonily silent, as Snyder and his assistants spoke. Then, one by one, they rose to angrily denounce the plan.

Takeo Taiyoshi, one of the community’s elder statesmen, slowly approached the microphone.

“We have 100 years behind us. One hundred years of struggle. One hundred years of pain and joys and discrimination,” the little man in the gray suit said haltingly. “It is only right, I think, to my mind, that this district should be commemorated as a historic district in honor of those . . . who struggled and endured so long.”

Later, Stoke called the meeting “well-staged.”

“I’m not persuaded that that’s an accurate reflection (of community sentiment),” he said.

Lindsay, who called the meeting but failed to show up, characterized it in similar terms. “I’m not inclined to accept that one meeting as a basis,” he said.

Note of Conciliation

Nevertheless, its impact reverberated. As word spread, political pressure mounted on Lindsay to disavow the plan. Late last month, in response to private pleas, he sent a conciliatory letter to community leaders saying he would respect Little Tokyo’s wishes with regard to the restoration of the storefronts and the temple.

But Lindsay carefully made no reference to the fate of the Union Church and took steps later that indicate he is less than supportive of its presence.

Despite a promise that the councilman would support a city historic designation for the church as well as the temple, Lindsay’s aide, Sal Altamirano, tried to block the church’s consideration in an April 2 meeting of the Cultural Heritage Commission. But the commission, which forwards its recommendations to the City Council, decided to consider both buildings.

Plans being drawn up by Snyder, while omitting the storefronts and temple, still call for the church’s removal.

“It’s one thing to preserve what some people want to have preserved, in order to keep a project,” said Stoke. “It’s another thing to try to create a value there for the city.”

A Question of Value

Stoke said the restoration of the church would “seriously reduce” the value of the property.

“We can’t build. We can’t do anything. It just sits there. Leave it there and the city loses revenue,” he said.

Lindsay, too, has little patience with the community’s argument that the church has historic and cultural significance.

“I think that they are just getting something to say,” the councilman said in an interview, abandoning the conciliatory tone he adopted in his letter.

“I’m not going to argue that just because it was sentimental during the war that we should keep them. They just don’t want to move.”

Asked whether he still would defer to the community, Lindsay said he “probably” would “until we can finally have more solidarity.”

A Sharp Response

Told by a reporter that community leaders insist there is solidarity--against Snyder’s development--the councilman grew short.

“That’s totally incorrect,” he snapped. “It’s not Snyder and Lindsay the only ones.” But asked who in the community supported the plan, he offered no names.

Lindsay’s vacillation notwithstanding, the pro-restoration forces have been buoyed in recent weeks by the support of Mayor Tom Bradley, who said in a letter that the district has “special cultural and historic significance.”

The business owners and tenants say they are confident that their shops are safe for now , but they are girding for a fight over the church. The battle is expected to continue for months as the city sets up guidelines for competitive bidding to build on the city-owned property behind the stores facing 1st Street.

Ruthann Lehrer, executive director of the Los Angeles Conservancy, called the proposed church move “horrendous” and added that “the community still stands very firm for preservation of the entire area.”

Among those who have spent years battling for restoration, there is a growing and barely concealed bitterness over recent events.

“I’m a little skeptical,” said Brian Kito. “The fight we do every year or two, it seems. It just repeats itself, year after year. It’s almost like waiting for our section to be weak enough so as to not even bother (to fight).”

Tim Sperl, whose grandfather built 1st Street’s oldest remaining store 104 years ago, is similarly apprehensive. But he insists that Little Tokyo residents and shopkeepers will work together to save their collective heritage.

“I figure this building’s been good to my family, all these years,” he said. “By God, I’m not going to let go of it.”