After Two Decades, Little Tokyo Sports Center to Break Ground

The Budokan project in Little Tokyo was first broached in 1994. It will host basketball, volleyball and martial arts games and tournaments, and there will also be community space.

DTLA - In 1994, the Little Tokyo Service Center began an effort to raise money for a multi-purpose facility that would serve as a sports and community center for the historic neighborhood. Twenty-three years later, the project is ready to break ground.

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On Thursday, Aug. 3, LTSC staffers will be joined by other community leaders for the start of construction on the Terasaki Budokan. Located at 237-249 S. Los Angeles St., the 39,000-square-foot facility will hold a two-court gymnasium, a children’s playground and a garden.

“It’s been a long and wild time. It’s definitely the light at the end of the tunnel,” Dean Matsubayashi, executive director of the LTSC, told Los Angeles Downtown News. “It’s been really challenging.”

The idea of a recreation center in Little Tokyo actually dates to the 1980s, with community groups looking for gym space where people could practice and play. Japanese-American sports leagues, in particular basketball leagues, have been a major part of the community since the end of World War II, noted Ellen Endo, president of the Little Tokyo Business Association. However, over the decades many leagues spread out across Los Angeles County, leaving little activity in Downtown.

Matsubayashi recalled that, in the early years, the LTSC struggled to find a location for what was then dubbed the Little Tokyo Recreation Center. Endo noted that community support waxed and waned in the 1990s.

In 2011, then-City Councilwoman Jan Perry helped the LTSC secure rights to a nearly one-acre parcel adjacent to the former St. Vibiana’s Cathedral. The LTSC signed a 50-year lease on the land with the city.

Yet even with the site secured, fundraising lagged. The ongoing capital campaign means the LTSC now has roughly $24.3 million of the $25 million needed, Matsubayashi said. Nearly two thirds of the money has come from local and state grants, according to Alan Kosaka, the chair of the Budokan capital campaign.

The remainder was secured through individual donors. The Budokan is named after the late Dr. Paul I. Terasaki, a philanthropist and scientist who worked on organ transplant medicine, whose foundation gave $3.5 million.

Kosaka expects that the remaining funds will come from grassroots donations from the Little Tokyo community.

“Seven hundred thousand dollars shouldn’t be a problem, compared to what we’ve already had to raise,” Kosaka said.

Once the construction costs are fully secured, the LTSC plans to start fundraising for the community center’s long-term operations and maintenance.

The one-story project will have a 35-foot-high ceiling to accommodate some of the sports. It will host basketball, volleyball and martial arts programs, games and tournaments, said Mike Murase, director of the Budokan campaign for the LTSC. He added that the organization sees the Budokan as a resource for nearby low-income residents who might not have access to gyms or basketball courts.

The project, being designed by Gruen Associates, will also have a rooftop terrace and community rooms. Murase said the facility will offer art and cultural exhibitions, concerts and programs for senior citizens.

City Councilman José Huizar, whose 14th District includes Little Tokyo, said the project will serve the community for decades to come.

“The end result will be a space that brings sports programming, cultural activities and a long-deserved community center to this historic neighborhood — representing the very best of Little Tokyo and Japanese culture,” Huizar said in a statement to Los Angeles Downtown News.

The playground will be on the Budokan’s rooftop terrace. The garden area will be on that level too, and will be maintained by the community. Plans also call for art installations.

The space will be available for private rentals, but Matsubayashi said that the community center will in general be open to the public. He added that the LTSC does not see the facility as exclusive to the Japanese-American community, and that residents of greater Downtown will be welcome.

Murase sees the Budokan as another anchor for Little Tokyo, along with the Japanese American National Museum and the Japanese American Cultural & Community Center. The LTSC hopes the space will help preserve Little Tokyo as a cultural center for the Japanese American community, a sentiment Endo shares.

“It now kind of sets the western border for Little Tokyo, which we kind of lost,” Endo said. “Little Tokyo over the years has kind of shrunk, so it’s nice to have a place that says this is still part of it.”

Construction is expected to be complete by the end of 2018. The LTSC hopes to open the Budokan in early 2019.

© Los Angeles Downtown News 2017