By KENJI LIU, Rafu Contributor
After decades of work by the community to gain control over the First Street North block, Los Angeles City Councilmember Kevin de León recently greenlit the expansion of a September 2020 ground lease with Go For Broke National Education Center (GFBNEC) and Little Tokyo Service Center (LTSC).
The City Council then passed the motion unanimously, paving the way for construction of affordable housing and an education center on the southeast corner of Temple and Aiso, just north of Union Center for the Arts.
First Street North, bounded by Aiso Street on the west, Alameda Street on the east, First Street on the south and Temple Street on the north, is one of the last three remaining pieces of public land that can be controlled by the community and is home to some of Little Tokyo’s most important cultural institutions, legacy businesses, and historic sites.
“For Councilmember de León to have introduced his motion in City Council to expand the lease to provide for 200+ affordable housing units and community-benefitting uses on the ground floor commercial space was truly bold action that the Little Tokyo community has long awaited,” said Erich Nakano, executive director of LTSC. “Not six months into his term, he is making good on his commitment to address the homelessness crisis, and to partner with the community to ensure an equitable, dynamic future for Little Tokyo.”
Development of the block had long been in limbo under former Councilmember Jose Huizar, who was facing federal investigation for bribery and corruption. Huizar did, however, help secure a smaller ground lease for a parcel adjacent to the Go For Broke Monument at Temple and Alameda.
Huizar was arrested in June 2020 for accepting $1.5 million in bribes from developers for downtown projects in Council District 14, and 34 counts of racketeering indictments. With Council District 14 left without representation, de León started his term early in October 2020, enabling community efforts to move forward.
“I’m really excited and grateful — we’ve been working towards community control for First Street North for so long, and it’s almost hard to believe that the opportunity is finally here,” said Kristin Fukushima, managing director of Little Tokyo Community Council (LTCC). “And this window to finally achieve our long-time community vision is only made possible through the support and action of Councilmember de León.”
GFBNEC, whose mission is to educate and inspire character and equality through the virtue and valor of World War II American veterans of Japanese ancestry, has been partnering with LTSC, a community development and social services organization, since 2018 to envision and build a five-story education center and affordable housing, including veterans’ housing.
“Developing the First Street North block has been talked about for many years. Councilmember de Leon is putting that talk into action,” said Mitch Maki, president and CEO of GFBNEC. “Our organization, Little Tokyo Service Center, and the surrounding Little Tokyo community will be the beneficiaries of this project.”
Truly affordable housing has been in sharp decline and Little Tokyo’s rent-burdened households grew from 49% to 59% between 2010 and 2018 (exceeding the 2018 L.A. County average of 55%), and is very likely to have worsened during the pandemic.
De León has been supportive of Sustainable Little Tokyo’s (SLT) community vision for First Street North since the start of the Council District 14 race, calling it “the guiding document for all things as it relates to the development and the growth of Little Tokyo” at a candidate’s forum in February 2020. With this expansion, it appears de León is committed to being a true partner and taking on community issues at the City Council level.
“Little Tokyo Service Center came to CD14 seeking to develop a larger project on the site and Councilmember De León immediately recognized the benefit, in addition to the fact of LTSC’s long and outstanding record of building sensible affordable housing,” said a spokesperson for the councilmember. “By expanding the lease, we were able to work out more density, thereby providing for more units as part of the mixed-used development.”
In coalition with Japanese American Cultural & Community Center, LTCC, and LTSC, the SLT Community Vision covers three public parcels of land — First Street North, Mangrove, and the Metro Regional Connector station development.
SLT is in the process of updating the community vision, having engaged approximately 150 members of the community through seven virtual workshops. Though this process has been on pause due to the pandemic, it will continue once it is safe to gather in person.
In the meantime, the Little Tokyo/Arts District Metro Regional Connector station site has been moving forward. Though Metro had originally proposed awarding the development to an outside developer, community backlash forced them to initiate a new request for proposals, for which LTSC may re-apply to be the developer.
For the past few years, SLT’s MyFSN campaign has fought to bring greater awareness of the First Street North block’s significance and the potential danger of outside developers being recruited to build on it while ignoring the community’s vision.
“We are so appreciative of Councilmember de León’s support in bringing part of our community vision to life,” said Scott Oshima, SLT program director. “With an expanded lease, we will be able to build more affordable housing, affordable retail space, and community and cultural space to anchor our historic Japantown for future generations.”
Approval of the councilmember’s motion by consent by the City Council’s Information, Technology & General Services Committee followed the public comment period, with over seven Little Tokyo stakeholders speaking in strong support. The motion moved to the full City Council, where it was approved on Tuesday.
“I want to commend LTSC and GFBNEC for their incredible commitment towards this project. They have a long, outstanding record of building sensible, affordable housing when we all know we need it so badly in Los Angeles.” said de León on Tuesday. “By expanding this lease we’ll be able to work on more density and thereby provide more units. This project ensures that First Street North will be revitalized in this historic part of Downtown L.A.”
The councilmember’s office said, “the community has a strong record of activism and community-centered advocacy. Continued engagement is the most effective way to keep this project moving forward, particularly as it relates to public hearings.”
Oshima agreed, “We will continue to work with the councilmember to secure the rest of the First Street North block, as well as the other public lands, the Regional Connector station site and Mangrove.”
Join the Little Tokyo Community Forum on Thursday, April 8, from 6:30 to 8 p.m. SLT will continue community engagement on this project to determine the arts and cultural, community, commercial, and open/green spaces. Join on Zoom through http://bit.ly/lt-forum; or call (669) 900-6833, enter meeting ID 862 3366 8906 #, and press # for participant ID.