The Little Tokyo Galleria has been decried by Downtowners for nearly three decades. Area residents and workers have complained about the exterior of the hulking gray structure, frequently comparing it to a fortress and saying that it doesn’t fit with the vibrant community.


Now, the Korean-American investors who bought the mall six years ago are responding. Green construction wrapping has gone up, and the team is orchestrating a new exterior look.

Designs for the exterior renovation show large, rectangular LED light boards, which will cast a decorative glow at night, on walls along Alameda and Third streets. The walls will also receive articulated metallic panels to give the exterior texture. A sprinkling of slender vertical LED lights and new lighted signage, including for street-adjacent businesses such as cream puff vendor Beard Papa’s, round out the upgrades.

Construction began in late May. The exterior upgrade is slated to be unveiled by the end of September, said Galleria Property Manager Jay Kim.

The renovation isn’t just skin deep. The inside of the building is getting infrastructure upgrades to the air conditioning and plumbing systems, Kim said. Another batch of renovations will start by October to beautify and modernize the interior of the complex.

The total cost of the upgrades, both exterior and interior, is estimated at $6 million-$7 million, according to Kim.

“There are new tenants coming in, and we want to bring more people to the Galleria and make it a destination,” he said. “Ownership wants to move to the next level with this building, and few things have changed since 1985.”

Some changes have already occurred since the building was acquired by the group known as Three Alameda Plaza. In May 2013, the $6 million X Lanes opened on the top level of the three-story complex. It features 24 neon bowling lanes and an arcade with more than 100 games, along with a restaurant and a sports bar.

A ground-level coffee shop, Tom N Toms, opened in 2012. It is part of a chain based in Korea.

Those additions complement longstanding tenants such as the building’s anchor, the supermarket Woori Market. There are also some popular eating establishments, including Sushi Go 55 and Manna Korean BBQ.

Nearby Housing, Too

Along with the physical changes, there will be new tenants. Chief among them is Daiso, a Japanese general goods market (akin to a small Target with an Asian bent) that has more than 3,000 locations worldwide. The lease was finalized this week, said Kim, and it will occupy 8,300 square feet of space on the first floor.

Also confirmed are a dentist’s office and a 10,000-square-foot kids’ playground and cafe, which is aiming to open by the end of year.

The work won’t stop there. Kim said the Galleria’s owners are securing entitlements to develop a residential building with street-level retail on a current surface parking lot at the northwest corner of Fourth and Alameda streets. Construction could begin as soon as the first quarter of 2015, he added. No other timeline, budget or design details were revealed.

The action at the mall is garnering optimism and praise from some area stakeholders. Ellen Endo, the president of the Little Tokyo Business Association and co-chair of the Little Tokyo Business Improvement District, said she is glad to see the mall’s owners follow through on their promise to revitalize the complex and invest in the community.

“It’s always great to see upgrades on structures that have been here for a while,” Endo said. “Improvements like that make the Galleria and the entire neighborhood a more attractive destination for people from around the city.”

Her outlook was echoed by Dean Matsubayashi, executive director of the nonprofit Little Tokyo Service Center.

“The Galleria is a major part of the community, so we welcome the investments that are being put into it,” Matsubayashi said. “It’s a good extension of the stellar bowling alley and new restaurants that have already arrived.”

The renovations coming to the Galleria, as well as the owners’ plan to develop ground-up housing, parallel the growth already occurring in Little Tokyo. The biggest future development is the arrival of an underground rail station at First Street and Central Avenue as part of the $1.42 billion Regional Connector, a project which will tie together area rail lines. That has already displaced three eateries — Señor Fish, Weiland Brewery and Spice Table — from a portion of the block bordered by Central Avenue and Alameda and First streets.

Also underway are several housing projects. The first phase of the Ava Little Tokyo is almost complete, and will deliver 104 apartments to 236 S. Los Angeles St. Another 176 units will open by the end of the year.

Next to that is a project from developer Sares-Regis, which will create 240 apartments at 232 E. Second St. The first move-ins will begin in early 2016.

Matsubayashi said he is enthusiastic about the changes in Little Tokyo, providing the new developments benefit existing stakeholders. Endo expressed a similar viewpoint.

“We’re cautiously optimistic about the future. There’s new people and businesses here, and it’s an exciting time,” she said. “We want to preserve the integrity of the heritage and culture here. But we also want to see more diversity and new entrepreneurs.”

Twitter: @eddiekimx