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Activists Persuade City to Drop Plan for Jail in Little Tokyo

August 01, 2003|Julie Tamaki | Times Staff Writer

In the political skirmishes of downtown Los Angeles, Little Tokyo has often been a passive player -- a weakness local leaders currently attribute to a lack of unity among the old family entrepreneurs, young hipsters and community groups that make up the historic district.

But a proposal to build a 512-bed jail near the 98-year-old Hompa Hongwanji Buddhist Temple has generated widespread outrage. Community members gathered more than 13,000 signatures of people who oppose locating the jail on the site adjacent to the temple.

City Hall, taken by surprise, has backpedaled.

"Because of the united front we're showing, they backed off," said Howard Nishimura, past chairman of the Little Tokyo Community Council, a collection of more than 80 civic, business, resident, nonprofit, arts and religious organizations. "We usually don't say much of anything. There are so few issues we can get united behind."

On this one, they agreed.

"From young activists to the business community, nobody wanted a jail," said Evelyn Yoshimura, who is on the community council executive committee.

Initially, the city proposed building a public safety complex with a jail and new police headquarters on an 11-acre site between the temple and the Japanese American National Museum along East 1st Street. But in reaction to community opposition, city officials changed the plan; it no longer includes the jail at that location.

"There was a very strong reaction, so we took it into account and looked for some other alternatives," Chief Legislative Analyst Ron Deaton said.

Responding to community concerns, Mayor James K. Hahn and Councilwoman Jan Perry, who represents the area, announced their opposition to the 1st Street site for the jail.

"It's a bad idea to locate a jail in the Little Tokyo/Arts District due to a burgeoning residential community," Perry said Saturday at a community workshop attended by more than 170 people. "The presence of a jail does nothing to enhance my agenda for economic development."

The city is now considering building the new jail in the Parker Center area, which community members note was once part of Little Tokyo.

Little Tokyo residents and merchants had a number of concerns about the initial jail proposal. They feared that developers, who planned to construct 500 housing units across from the location, would pull out of the area. They also worried that the city would seize a parking lot owned by the temple.

Security, noise, traffic and other disruptions the project could generate remain concerns, according to the Rev. George T. Matsubayashi, the temple's lead minister. But he was quick to credit city officials for listening to the community.

"For them to compromise this much ... it usually doesn't happen," Matsubayashi said. "I'm grateful."

The city may still push forward with new police headquarters, an emergency operation center, a fire station and several other government buildings at the 1st Street site. But some hope that both the new jail and police headquarters will be built at the existing Parker Center site.

"It is easier to protect and close off one area of the city -- with just one set of barricades during terrorist alerts," said Brady Westwater, an urban planner.

Opposition to the modified proposal has not completely diminished, however. Thomas Guiton, a resident of the nearby Artist District who attended the Saturday workshop, said the proposal would box in Little Tokyo, blocking Artist District residents and visitors from the neighborhood.

Guiton also questioned the plan to use the site for government buildings that are typically used only during the workweek.

"We're unanimous in our opposition to putting this kind of facility there," Guiton said. "We think it drives a stake in the heart of two communities, Little Tokyo and the Arts District."

Paul Danna, design principal for the project, said that the proposal was in the preliminary planning stage and that the design process would begin after the buildings' locations had been determined.

Whether Little Tokyo's community cohesiveness will continue remains to be seen. "In the future ... we may have something to work off of," said Brian Kito, owner of Fugetsu-Do, a 100-year-old confection shop.

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