A New Chapter for Japanese Village Plaza
Japanese Village Plaza, built in 1978, has been purchased. The new owner's plan for a major renovation has sparked some concern from area stakeholders. Photo by Gary Leonard.

For nearly three decades, Japanese Village Plaza has served as a barometer for Little Tokyo.

Built in 1978 as a symbol of the neighborhood's up-and-coming status, the outdoor mall later lost luster as the neighborhood grappled with an economic downturn and weak tourism market. Now, with Little Tokyo entrenched in the residential revitalization sweeping across Downtown Los Angeles, Japanese Village Plaza appears poised for a comeback.

That could occur soon. Malibu-based American Commercial Equities purchased the property last month from Cathy Chang for an undisclosed sum. (The nearby New Otani Hotel also sold. See story p. 3.) The company has announced plans to upgrade the plaza over the next year.

"What we really plan on doing is giving a new face to the project while maintaining its integrity," said Marvin Lotz, president of American Commercial. "We look at it as an opportunity to revitalize a center that's been very, very important culturally."

But some community members fear that Japanese Village Plaza's renovation could push out some of its mom-and-pop businesses, compromising the mall's distinctly ethnic character.

Revitalization Project

Japanese Village Plaza, connecting First and Second streets between San Pedro Street and Central Avenue, was built as a project of the Community Redevelopment Agency. It was part of a larger effort to revitalize the neighborhood.

Around that time, recalls Bill Watanabe, executive director of the Little Tokyo Service Center, there was concern in the community that the CRA seemed focused on bringing "big, high-profile projects" into Little Tokyo.

Japanese Village Plaza, he says, "was sort of a response to the concerns; a way to keep the ethnic flavor of the mom and pop shops in Little Tokyo."

To this day, the plaza retains its small-town feel, though it also has obvious tourist appeal. Its cozily situated businesses include Japanese restaurants, cafes, clothing stores and a specialty market.

Initially, Japanese Village Plaza thrived, fed largely by a steady stream of Japanese tourists, said Frances Hashimoto, past president of the Little Tokyo Business Association and owner of the mall's Mikawaya Mochi Ice Cream.

During the '90s, the Asian economy took a downturn, and the effects were felt in Los Angeles.

"The Japanese tourists stopped," said Hashimoto, "and as a result the Japanese companies here that rely on Japanese tourists closed and left." In the years that followed, she says, "It was a really gloomy type of atmosphere" in Little Tokyo and at the plaza, which fell into a state of semi-neglect.

In recent years, however, business in the neighborhood has picked up, helped by a slew of new, nearby residential projects, including the Savoy condominiums at First and Alameda streets, the 128-unit Hikari apartments on East Second Street and the Little Tokyo Lofts on San Pedro Street. Several other developments are underway.

With an influx of residents and more than 40 new businesses reportedly opened in Little Tokyo last year, Japanese Village Plaza has benefited from the emergence of an increasingly active community.

"If you look around, there are people walking at night now," said Hashimoto. "We used to close at seven, and now we're open until 10 and on weekends until 11."

Looking to the Future

Large-scale renovation plans for Japanese Village Plaza are still in the early stage and will not be implemented for at least six months, said Lotz.

The complete upgrade, according to the plaza's new property manager, will be finished in approximately a year and will include renovating the currently vacant second-story office spaces, which the owners hope to eventually lease.

In the meantime, improvements such as cleaning, tree trimming, repainting and enhancing the plaza's security are underway.

"We're not doing anything structurally to the center now," Lotz said. In the long run, he added, "We have no plans to flip this center. Our plans are just to enhance it."

While tenants agree that a facelift for Japanese Village Plaza is long overdue, many also worry about the possibility of increased rents.

"All the tenants are anxious," said Nikki Ikeda, owner of the plaza's Blooming Art Gallery. "The new owners invested a lot of money, and sooner or later, they'll increase the rent." Fueling the anxiety, she said, is the fact that many of the mall's current tenants have month-to-month leases.

Lotz said that for now, "We haven't even entertained the thought of increased rents or anything like that." But property manager Mark Hong of CB Richard Ellis, who will handle leasing for the plaza, is more blunt about the future.

"Not all businesses are successful," Hong said. "The ones that are not successful will not be extended."

That prospect has led to concern that the changes pending at Japanese Village Plaza could compromise its status as a Japanese-American enclave.

"I think many of us are concerned that the plaza maintain its cultural identity," said Chris Aihara, chair of the Little Toyko Community Council and executive director of the Japanese American Cultural & Community Center. "I would be happy to see some consideration given to the uniqueness of some of the stores that reflect the culture."

Aihara and others say they hope the plaza will continue to host cultural events, as it has throughout its history. Most recently, the mall offered an outdoor market with everything from handmade paper to Japanese-style clothes and a stage hosting martial arts demonstrations as part of Nisei Week, the annual festival celebrating Japanese-American culture that ended last week.

"We are very sensitive to the cultural issues surrounding this project," Lotz said in response to the concerns. Maintaining Japanese Village Plaza's character, he said, is "our number one priority."

To that end, American Commercial has selected Rothenberg Sawasy Architects to collaborate on renovation plans for the plaza. The firm drafted the mall's original design more than 30 years ago.

"The current plans for JVP will restore much of the original architecture detail character that has decayed with years of deferred maintenance," wrote RSA principal Mitchell Sawasy in an e-mail from Shanghai, where he is working on a project. "JVP has held up very well and the original concept is still valid today. With a few new twists it is my hope that the community will still appreciate it for many years to come."

For now, Little Tokyo community members seem mostly willing to give the new owners the benefit of the doubt and are ready to welcome new business.

"As the neighborhood changes, the businesses also have to gear to a new customer base," Hashimoto said. "It's exciting to me that there's so much interest in our area, but at the same time I'm concerned that it stays Little Tokyo."

Contact Anna Scott at anna@downtownnews.com.

page 1, 8/27/2007

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