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Outgrowing the Past : Distinctive Sawtelle Neighborhood Gives Way to Development

May 30, 1985|LYNDON STAMBLER | Times Staff Writer and

The Yamaguchi store on Sawtelle Boulevard has been a fixture in the Sawtelle Japanese-American community for 39 years.

Local children can buy candy at the old-fashioned counter and adults can purchase everything from gifts to rice steamers.

But owners Hank and Jack Yamaguchi say they are uneasy about the rash of new office and retail buildings on a street better known for its nurseries and sushi bars--a street that some say is the center of the West Los Angeles Japanese-American community.

"All I know is our customers don't like it. The feeling is different," Hank Yamaguchi says. "The whole environment has changed."

"It's already ruined," a Japanese-American customer agreed.

For more than a decade, Sawtelle Boulevard has been at the center of a debate between landowners, who want to build high-rises between Olympic and Santa Monica boulevards, and residents and small merchants who want to preserve the neighborhood. Last August, the City Council imposed a three-story height limit on new construction after the long battle.

City Councilman Marvin Braude says the limit has helped. "It would have been a disaster if we had more six- and seven-story buildings on the street," Braude said.

Angry at Planning

But others are angry at what they see as a failure in planning. "I think the City Council and the Planning Commission should be shot for allowing all of these buildings before widening the street," said a person who works in the area.

One thing is certain: The northern part of Sawtelle has taken on a new look.

Four new buildings have been completed, including a three-story brick building that takes up nearly an entire block, between La Grange and Missouri avenues, and the Sawtelle Center with a potpourri of ethnic restaurants. Bulldozers and cranes are a common sight and it is not unusual for traffic to back up for blocks on the two-lane street.

There are still many Japanese stores and restaurants, but more than 200,000 square feet of office space has been built on Sawtelle, which is facing the development pressure that has hit the entire Westside. A phalanx of high-rise buildings is proposed on Olympic, the southern flank of the Sawtelle community.

Real estate agents say that land prices are lower on Sawtelle than on Olympic, Santa Monica and Wilshire boulevards. Despite the height limit and congestion, there are incentives for developing Sawtelle, they say.

"The whole Westside is exploding. It's a natural outgrowth of the Olympic corridor," said Cushman & Wakefield broker Gina Webb.

Although Sawtelle is beginning to look like many other Westside streets, it has a rich history. The area was originally settled by Mexican, and later Japanese, immigrants who worked as farm laborers before World War II.

When the Japanese-Americans returned from relocation camps after World War II, many became gardeners and several opened up nurseries. There were 30 wholesale and several backyard nurseries in the area in 1959, according to Sid Yamazaki, the president of the West Los Angeles Japanese American Citizens League, who did a study on the nurseries as a UCLA student.

Today the area still has a sizable Japanese-American population of more than 2,000. Residents send their children to the Japanese Institute of Sawtelle, a language school, and shop at the Japanese markets. Many attend the Buddhist and Methodist churches that conduct services in Japanese. But the ministers of both churches say their congregations are predominantly made up of people who are over 50 and the younger generation is leaving the the area.

The Nora Sterry Elementary School on the northern end of Sawtelle tells the story of shifting demographics. According to Yamazaki, a former administrator there, the school was once evenly divided among three ethnic groups: Japanese-American, Latino and white. Now most of the students are Latino, he said.

In the past decade, Latinos have moved back into the area. Large numbers wait for day labor and live in cramped apartments.

Some longtime residents fear the onslaught of the new development.

"The impact has been that the big businesses and buildings monopolize the area," said Sylvester Navarette, a resident for 45 years. "They take over and really don't . . . contribute to the community."

Widening Proposed

But more development may be on the way. Kenneth H. Naramura, president of the Sawtelle Community Assn., and Donn F. Morey, its vice president, are spearheading a proposal to widen Sawtelle and place the utilities underground. The change, which could lead to consideration of a six-story height limit, could add millions of square feet in new commercial office and retail space.

Last year, Naramura and Morey submitted a petition to the city from property owners in favor of the proposal. They also submitted a traffic study by Crain & Associates that concluded that the street could support 2.7 million square feet of office and retail space after the widening.

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