After more than a decade of planning, the Japantown community and The City are on the verge of approving a blueprint for the future that is considered precedent-setting in its focus on preserving cultural heritage. The document is seen as the best chance for Japantown's survival — particularly to avoid a repeat of the situation that decimated the neighboring black community of the Fillmore district decades ago.
San Francisco's Japantown is considered the oldest in the nation, forming more than 100 years ago. It's among three — San Jose and Los Angeles being the others — remaining in the U.S. Its top attraction is the annual Cherry Blossom Festival, which attracts an estimated 200,000 people.
The planning document enshrines the importance of protecting Japantown's culture; inventories 322 culturally important buildings, businesses, organizations and events; and makes 19 recommendations for economic development and investment.
The importance of having such a plan, one specifically adopted as official city policy, was underscored by the Rev. Arnold Townsend, a longtime resident of the Fillmore who saw the black community displaced by the Redevelopment Agency in the 1960s.
"The same kind of decision was made to maintain and keep our heritage," Townsend said. "But the problem was they were just suggestions. And they were totally and completely ignored. You then watch your culture and your memories and your future being bulldozed."
Some hope the plan's adoption also represents a turning point in The City's commitment. Jon Osaki, executive director of the Japanese Community Council, said he has seen businesses close and cultural aspects vanish.
"I have very much felt at times that The City did not always feel like Japantown should be a priority for city resources or The City's time and attention," Osaki said, adding that "as long as it took to get here, this really is just the beginning."
Challenges for the community are that it doesn't attract the amount of tourist dollars as other neighborhoods, not many Japanese live there and in-migration of Japanese is much lower than other ethnic groups.
"Keeping in mind the unique history of what's happened to our Japanese community in San Francisco, I believe it's imperative we work to protect this neighborhood's cultural jewel," said Supervisor London Breed, whose district includes Japantown.
The strength of the community's fight to preserve itself was seen in 2009 when it rallied together to defeat plans to increase height limits at the Japan Center Malls to allow for three towers of up to 250 feet and other height increases, such as along Geary Boulevard.
Today, development pressures exist with many buildings nearing the end of their lifetime. And under existing land controls, there is room to build 2,700 housing units and a half-million square feet of commercial space.
Among the community's larger assets are the city-owned parking garage, which averages about 550,000 vehicles annually, and the Japan Center Malls, which the plan said are woefully in need of an upgrade.
"This is the elephant in the room," said City Planner Steve Wertheim. "This is the heart of the neighborhood and yet we have a property owner who we've had difficulty engaging with." The plan recommends creating a specialized method to revitalize the mall.
Business preservation and attraction also is emphasized. Wertheim noted a lost opportunity when the popular Japanese retailer Uniqlo opened its first flag ship store in Union Square last year and "probably never considered Japantown ... even though it would be a perfect match for the neighborhood."
The Japantown Cultural Heritage and Economic Sustainability Strategy, or JChess, which was approved by the Planning Commission on Sept. 19, is pending approval by the Board of Supervisors.
City planners say it's the first planning document to focus on the preservation and promotion of a neighborhood's cultural heritage, and could serve as a model for other locations.
San Francisco's Japantown
The neighborhood is about six square blocks between Fillmore Street to the west, Laguna Street to the east, Bush Street or Pine Street to the north, and Geary Boulevard to the south.
• 7,150 Housing units in neighborhood
• 200 Institutional uses (community centers, schools, religious institutions, et al.)
• 700 Businesses occupying 2 million square feet of space
• 40 and 50 feet Most of the area's building height limits
• 634 Total neighborhood properties
• 2,700 New housing units allowed under existing land zoning
• 470,000 Square feet of potential new commercial space
19 recommendations to preserve Japantown
• Create a Japantown Community Development Corporation
• Create a Japantown Community Land Trust
• Implement Invest in Neighborhoods plan
• Negotiate community benefits agreements with major new developments
• Create a Japantown Community Benefits District
• Implement a Japantown Mello-Roos Community Facilities District
• Utilize funds from the San Francisco Grants for the Arts
• Utilize Japan Center Garages' Capital Improvement Funds
• Create a Japantown Neighborhood Commercial District
• Create Japantown Design Guidelines
• Implement improvements to Peace Plaza
• Implement improvements to Buchanan mall
• Develop a strategic plan for the Japan Center Malls
• Utilize tools for preservation of historic biuldings and structures
• Leverage the Japantown Special Use District to cultivate and attract new businesses appropriate to Japantown
• Utilize the city's design guidelines
• Implementment streetscape and pedestrian improvemets per Better Streets Plan
• Implement Proposed Transportation Improvements
• Market the Neighborhood through SFTravel