Of Torii and Roji

Courtesy Edaw San Francisco

San Francisco’s Japan Center, the retail centerpiece of a controversial downtown redevelopment project that leveled most of Japantown nearly 50 years ago, is now the subject of its own new development plans presented at a public meeting on February 12. EDAW’s San Francisco office and Colorado-based retail architect Studio Taku Shimizu recently unveiled preliminary plans for a mixed-use center that reintroduces housing to these historically residential blocks. While the proposed housing enjoys broad community support, the project poses more complex questions about how best to preserve Japantown’s cultural core when the Japanese-American population is diminishing and only three such districts remain in the United States. 

This latest look at reinventing Japantown was set in motion, in part, by the 2006 sale of two malls and a hotel comprising two-thirds of Japan Center plus a nearby hotel to Los Angeles developer 3D Investments. Working with hotel group Joie de Vivre, 3D Investments moved quickly to reopen the hotels as the upscale Hotel Kabuki and anime-themed Hotel Tomo, but heeded the planning department’s request to let the larger vision for Japan Center unfold as part of the city’s community-focused Japantown “Better Neighborhoods Plan” process, set to establish land use, urban design, preservation, economic development, and transportation strategies for the area. 

The Japan Center development is seen by officials as a way to revitalize the district by restoring some of its historic density and reversing the malls’ inward-facing stance. “Before redevelopment, an estimated 250 residences and 100,000 square feet of retail, mostly in three-story Victorian shop houses, filled these two blocks,” said EDAW principal Stephen Engblom. “What we have today—a one- to two-story blind box with roughly the same amount of retail plus the hotel, and none of the residential capacity—physically has much greater potential to contribute to the community’s goals of creating an intergenerational environment with safe and friendly street fronts on Post and Geary.” 

The four schemes presented for input at a community meeting last December range from a “baseline scheme,” which would add two stories of housing above the existing malls and open the malls to the streets, to comprehensive site reconfigurations that would more than double the leasable retail space to 200,000 square feet and add 73 to 210 residential units. The higher density of such schemes would require a 14-story tower comparable in scale to the existing hotel. 

Public comment at the meeting and online has favored the “Roji” scheme (rojimeans “alley” in Japanese), which introduces more human-scaled, mid-block alleys that break up the retail and strengthen connections through the site. The “Torii” (gate) scheme’s gateway retail bridge and the “Hirobai” (plaza) scheme’s open plazas linked by curving passageways have drawn criticism for imposing upon or eliminating the Peace Plaza, an important civic gathering space, which the Roji scheme preserves. 

While higher density and expanded retail promise more affordable housing, jobs, and tax revenues, the community is cautious about gentrification, said Bob Hamaguchi, executive director of the Japantown Task Force, which facilitates the neighborhood’s planning and improvement projects. “This plan is very important to Japantown’s future,” he said. “Preserving the cultural institutions, community services, and small businesses that make Japantown what it is today is one of our objectives.” 

Paul Osaki, executive director of the nonprofit Japanese Cultural & Community Center of Northern California, echoed the concerns for small businesses that would be displaced during construction, yet acknowledged the need for Japantown to reach beyond its traditional community as low birth and immigration rates and higher rates of multi-ethnic marriages reduce the Japanese-American population. “The challenge will be to attract new, culturally relevant businesses that make Japan Center exciting and engaging to a broader multi-ethnic audience,” he told AN. Osaki, like Engblom, sees Japan’s vibrant youth culture as an energizing element of a contemporary Japantown that is anchored by history and heritage. 

After two more rounds of community input, the refined scheme will be presented in April. 

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