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Gym Proposal Takes Plans Underground

Development: A compromise would put Little Tokyo facility 26 feet below ground and replace a parking lot with an art park. It also would increase the cost.


Proponents of a Little Tokyo recreation center embroiled in an exhausting eight-year struggle hope their latest proposal for a gym gets buried--literally.

In a tug of war that has split a community accustomed to consensus, an unusual proposal to construct the entire recreation center underground with the 3.5-acre Central Avenue Art Park project on top could prove the best compromise for the multiple parties involved.

At a meeting on Monday afternoon with councilwoman Jan Perry, whose 9th District includes Little Tokyo, the gym's supporters hope to convince her that down below is the place to go.

In a recent letter to Bill Watanabe, executive director of the Little Tokyo Service Center, the nonprofit group that is spearheading the gym proposal, Perry indicated a willingness to pursue a "totally underground project" as long as the group follows building procedures in a timely manner and addresses the concerns of all current stakeholders in the area, known as 1st Street North.

David Nagano, member and former president of the Little Tokyo Recreation Center Board, called the letter "closer than anything we've ever had" to securing a site for the recreation center. With Perry's support, the gym's proponents believe the City Council will grant them permission to build on the site. If plans move ahead, proponents say, the recreation center could open in 2005.

But before anyone has permission to begin construction, the city must find another location for a temporary parking garage on the site, which houses about 1,000 spaces for the Los Angeles Police Department and City Hall.

Perry so far has played referee in the conflict, convening and moderating a pair of heated public forums in Little Tokyo in June and July that were attended by hundreds of people.

During the debates, representatives from the Veterans of the 100th Battalion/442nd Regimental Combat Team, East West Players, Japanese American National Museum and the Museum of Contemporary Art's Geffen Contemporary endorsed an art park, saying it would add serenity to the site.

The park, scheduled to be built with city and private funds, would be overseen by a coalition of various groups and is envisioned as a peaceful gathering space, with greenery and perhaps sculpture.

Though the World War II veterans worried that the proposed gym would tower over their Go For Broke monument, which would have stood just a few steps away, the East West Players fretted over noise levels that could disrupt performances, as well as a lack of parking and blocked access.

Gym supporters, unfurling two long banners splattered with children's handprints, called for a 36-foot-tall recreational building squeezed between the future site of the Children's Museum of Los Angeles and the Union Center for the Arts. They had a downsized, 2-acre art park in mind.

A few weeks after the contentious verbal battles, recreation center architect Hayahiko Takase made an informal pitch to the Little Tokyo Community Council for an underground recreation center. The latest drawings from Takase, who also designed Little Tokyo's New Otani Hotel, show a six-court gym nestled 26 feet below ground, with auxiliary rooms used for lockers, computer classes and a senior citizens' lunch program. Also underground are 168 parking spaces.

In a design much like a suspension bridge, the center's roof hangs from a series of steel wires and posts protruding above ground. An alternative design--which would virtually erase any evidence of the building's supporting structures above the grass--relies on a 10-foot truss just below ground to anchor the courts.

"By putting it underground, it would no longer be too tall, too big, too close or too noisy," Watanabe said of the proposed 45,000-square-foot gym.

But it would be more expensive. At $40 to $45 more per square foot, the recreation center's price tag could inflate from about $9 million to more than $11 million, said Dean Matsubayashi, the service center's project manager.

There are also two sets of utility lines running underground across the site, which Takase said the building could avoid, and a water table that comes up to 23 feet in some areas. Takase said the building could be waterproofed by using asphalt walls and sump pumps.

Current leasers who so ardently opposed the gym's above-ground plan have approached this new development with cautious optimism, stressing they must study the plan in detail. "We'll absolutely be open to discussion," said Michael Maltzan, architect for the art park. "Everybody will take a significant look."

Though Christine Sato-Yamazaki, executive director of the Go for Broke Educational Foundation, hesitated to immediately weigh in on the plan, Daniel Mayeda, former co-president of the East West Players' board of directors, said the new proposal addresses their previous concerns and deemed it "very favorable."

Battered by a drop in tourism after Sept. 11, many 1st Street business owners welcome any plan that will draw people to Little Tokyo. "It's been so bad lately," said Sanae Furuki, who has owned Family Mart, which is located just south of the site, for 15 years. "We need people; that's it."

Many neighboring restaurant managers agreed--theorizing that even those consumed with running around underground must trot up some time to dish out dollars for a hot meal.

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