San Francisco needs to revitalize Japantown, preserve its cultural identity 

click to enlarge San Francisco's Japantown
  • Mike Koozmin/The S.F. Examiner

Out on Geary Boulevard, not far from Van Ness Avenue, a clump of buildings draws hundreds of thousands of people over two weekends each year during the Cherry Blossom Festival.

The problem for Japantown is the other 361 days of the year.

San Francisco's Japantown is a jewel that for years has struggled to live up to its potential. The site, which is said to have 322 culturally important buildings, is considered to be one of the oldest such neighborhoods in the United States and is one of only three still in existence.

Sadly, this culturally rich area of The City is a shell of what it could be. San Francisco should revitalize it in a way that preserves the history of the neighborhood.

One positive step forward is the Planning Department study that was recently approved by The City's Planning Commission and is headed next to the Board of Supervisors for approval.

That document lays out 19 recommendations for expanding the area's business and residential potential while also preserving its rich cultural heritage -- the later emphasis being a first in a city planning document. Many of the recommendations are related to reinvesting money in the area though such means as a Mello-Roos Community Facilities District or a community benefits district.

Working to expand retail, arts and, potentially, housing in the area and then reinvesting in the neighborhood seems as though it could bolster the district's stagnant economy while allowing residents and neighbors to have a say in the area's future.

A re-envisioning of the area driven by residents and business owners from Japantown itself could help prevent any disastrous makeover by an outside agency -- a lesson The City learned in a painful way with the redevelopment of the nearby Fillmore District.

While radical transformation of the area should be avoided, opportunities abound to rethink the neighborhood's land use. Many a passer-by of the Japan Center Malls may not even realize that there are vibrant stores nearby.

City officials and community advocates have put more than a decade of planning into designing a blueprint of what can be done to revitalize Japantown. Approval of this plan is an important step, but even more important is making sure that the plans are implemented.

San Francisco officials must make sure the plans do not sit on a shelf gathering dust while Japantown sinks into further oblivion.

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