By ELLEN ENDO, Rafu Shimpo
The pandemic, rising rents, higher cost of goods, vandalism, a homeless encampment, and a city councilmember’s blunder are among the reasons that 45 Little Tokyo businesses, roughly 10 percent, have left the area or closed permanently in the past three years, according to statistics released by the Little Tokyo Business Association (LTBA) this week.
LTBA manages the Little Tokyo Business Improvement District, which has been tracking merchant data since the LTBID was established by the Los Angeles City Council in 2003. Data shows that at the start of 2020, a total of 440 businesses were operating in Little Tokyo, its highest level ever. A majority of the businesses are small, independent, family-owned operations.
“A delicate balance exists where we are committed to honoring our community’s history and culture while also working to ensure that Little Tokyo is a place where small, independent businesses can continue to thrive,” stated LTBA President David Ikegami. “We need programs that support small businesses, especially legacy businesses.”
Such programs offering grants, social media marketing toolkits, specialized training, and incentives to property owners that retain legacy businesses as tenants have been instituted in San Francisco, Birmingham (Alabama), and Evanston (Illinois), where high-dollar capital projects often displace or disrupt legacy businesses.
While customers have returned in increasing numbers to the area deemed “Best Tourist Attraction in Downtown L.A. of 2022” by the L.A. Downtown News, long-standing businesses like California Bank and Trust, which opened in 1935 as Sumitomo Bank, New Japan Travel, founded in 1970, and Little Tokyo Cosmetics, operating since 1971, are among those that have opted to move or retire in recent months.
Then, in March 2020, the first coronavirus death was recorded. Soon, restaurants could only serve take-out or operate with limited seating, retail stores could only operate with reduced capacity, theaters closed, church services were suspended, and the phrase “social distancing” became part of everyone’s vocabulary.
Restaurants were hit hard financially by COVID-related restrictions, and some like Ebisu, which had been a Little Tokyo staple for 14 years, and Oreno Yakiniku, located in Weller Court since 2011, closed permanently. Honda Plaza quickly took action in July 2020 to help support its tenants and became Little Tokyo’s first large-scale outdoor dining venue.
The 10-restaurant “Ramen Row” along the north side of First Street followed suit by launching a unified al fresco effort in fall of 2020 with help from Kevin de León’s Council District 14. That ended three months ago when a bike lane was installed as part of the Regional Connector street restoration project with the Metro station due to open in spring of 2023.
A plan to reinstate First Street’s al fresco dining has been delayed due to the remaining city councilmembers’ reluctance to greenlight funding that originated under de León’s aegis.
Another factor that merchants say prompted them to leave the area was the presence of a growing homeless encampment atop the Aiso Parking Garage, a 300-space facility intended to provide affordable parking for Little Tokyo visitors after widespread government-funded redevelopment eliminated several privately owned parking lots. Until the encampment was removed on March 18 by a multi-agency effort coordinated by Council District 14, usage of the Aiso Garage parking had dropped dramatically from 90 percent to between 15-20 percent.
Adding to the complexities ahead is the opening of Metro’s Regional Connector station, a project eight years in the making, that is destined to bring 16,000 riders to and through Little Tokyo daily and will eventually become the system’s second-busiest station. Opening date has yet to be announced. The new station will qualify Little Tokyo as a “transit-oriented community,” which allows the planned 248-unit First Street North/Go For Broke affordable housing project to be built with