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Little Tokyo wary of proposed light-rail connector line

Satoru Uyeda has lived through Little Tokyo’s shifting fortunes for six decades.

In the 1940s, the removal of Japanese Americans from the entire West Coast after Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor emptied out Little Tokyo. But when the war was over, his father opened the S.K. Uyeda Department Store on 1st Street to sell bedding, clothes, kitchen supplies and other goods needed for returning families. Eventually, the community rebounded.

In the 1950s, the city took a key block away from Little Tokyo for the Parker Center police headquarters.

In the 1980s, Japanese investment and well-heeled tourists poured in. But that brought panhandlers and thieves, prompting Uyeda and others to form a voluntary safety patrol to drive them out.

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In the 1990s, Japan’s economic recession sank tourism and foreign investment in the neighborhood.

Now, just as Little Tokyo is beginning to thrive again with a multicultural mix of businesses and visitors, county transportation officials are proposing to plow a light-rail connector line through the historic heart of Southern California’s Japanese American community.

“It took 15 years for all of this economic activity to return to Little Tokyo, and I would hate to see that broken,” Uyeda said. “Once you break it, people will find other places to go. That will be a tragedy.”

Community members fear that the construction, noise, traffic and specter of hundreds of trains running through the neighborhood could kill off businesses, devastate property values and discourage visitors to the museums, cultural centers and other community institutions.

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The controversy has even reached Washington, D.C., and the ears of Sen. Daniel K. Inouye, the Hawaii Democrat who heads the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee. A key backer of the Japanese American National Museum, Inouye weighed in with a letter to L.A. County transportation officials expressing “strong interest” in the project and its effect on Little Tokyo.

But late last week, county transportation officials surprised the community by presenting a new concept that would keep the entire connector line underground through the key intersection of 1st and Alameda streets.

Officials are scheduled to present the idea Tuesday to the Little Tokyo Community Council, which represents more than 90 community organizations.

“We are responding to what we are hearing from the community,” said Dolores M. Roybal Saltarelli, manager of the regional connector project for the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority. “It’s all a work in progress.”

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Before the new concept surfaced, Metro had officially selected four alternatives to close the two-mile gap through downtown in the regional light-rail system. The aim is to connect the 7th Street/Metro Center stop and Union Station to allow a transfer-free ride from Pasadena to Long Beach and Culver City to East Los Angeles.

The project is expected to reduce the number of transfers at Union Station by 17,000 a day and to save riders both money and time -- as much as 20 minutes per trip, Roybal Saltarelli said. Metro is completing an environmental impact study and expects to issue its recommendation for a plan next fall, she said.

Two of the four alternatives involve building a connector through downtown. An above-ground route would weave from Union Station to 7th Street/Metro Center along Temple, Main, Los Angeles and 2nd streets. In a preliminary analysis, that route was estimated to cost $700 million in 2008 dollars.

An underground route would travel east on 2nd Street and surface on a lot at Central Avenue, where Office Depot and several restaurants sit. Then the trains would cross at 1st and Alameda above ground. Cars would run along Alameda on a submerged road, and pedestrians would cross on an overhead pass. The route was estimated to cost $900 million.

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This underground plan in particular has horrified many community members. A projected 526 trains a day would run through the 1st and Alameda intersection, Metro says.

Owners of the Savoy condominiums at that intersection have protested because of a potential loss in property values. The Japanese American National Museum, also located there, could suffer from reduced visitors and school tours -- especially during a construction period estimated to last four years, museum spokesman Chris Komai said.

Uyeda wonders if his shop -- which sells kimonos, futons and other Japanese specialty items -- could even survive.

And the plan could kill the liveliest part of Little Tokyo, critics say. The lots bounded by Central, Alameda, 1st and 2nd streets, which the county would buy, are currently occupied by 300 parking spaces and popular restaurants such as Senor Fish, Green Bamboo and Yogurtland. The parking and eateries have brought crowds back to the neighborhood.

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Last month, the Little Tokyo Community Council voted to oppose both plans.

“A lot of older people feel that Little Tokyo has never gotten a fair shake from the city and government agencies,” Komai said. “They’ve just done things to us. This is for some people the final straw.”

But Roybal Saltarelli said that Metro heard the concerns. Among other steps, the agency offered to retain the Central Avenue restaurants and move tunnel boring equipment away from Little Tokyo.

Metro’s latest underground plan had been one of the agency’s final eight proposed designs. But it was put aside in part because planners did not want to affect the proposed Nikkei Center, a Japanese American development on the northeast corner of 1st and Alameda, Roybal Saltarelli said.

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After Nikkei Center developer Jon Kaji expressed a willingness to discuss ways to coordinate the connector line with his development, planners were able to bring back the idea for exploration, Roybal Saltarelli said.

The new plan is still simply a rough concept, but it has thrilled Uyeda and other members of a Little Tokyo working group, all of whom are on the community council. Last week, they and others voted to recommend approval of the new idea by the council board.

“Everyone is upbeat,” Uyeda said. “We said, ‘Hey, they’re starting to listen to the community.’ ”

teresa.watanabe@latimes.com

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