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A leg up for gym in Little Tokyo

City Council OKs 50- year ground lease for long-sought project.

May 18, 2011|Teresa Watanabe

After two decades of dreams, backers of a Little Tokyo gymnasium won Los Angeles City Council approval Tuesday of a long-term ground lease for the project, marking a major step forward in their quest to revitalize the historic heart of Southern California's Japanese American community.

The 38,000-square-foot center, to be built on a city-owned parking lot at Los Angeles and 2nd streets, would feature four courts and recreational space for martial arts, basketball, volleyball and, possibly, fitness and dance classes.

With the ground lease for at least 50 years in hand, the project's backers will be able to start raising the estimated $20 million required for the gym and a 150-car parking garage, according to Bill Watanabe of the Little Tokyo Service Center, which is sponsoring the project.

"This has been a long time coming," Watanabe said before jubilant supporters after the council vote. "We're only at first base ... but it's still a pretty big hit."

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday, May 21, 2011 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 News Desk 1 inches; 44 words Type of Material: Correction
Little Tokyo: A photo in the May 18 LATExtra section accompanying an article about a gymnasium planned for the site of a parking lot on Los Angeles Street near 2nd Street in Little Tokyo actually showed a site at San Pedro and 2nd streets.

Watanabe said the gym, which will be called the Budokan of Los Angeles, represents more than an athletic facility to many Japanese Americans. It is also seen as a linchpin of cultural preservation.

As Japanese Americans scatter throughout the region, Little Tokyo -- one of only three Japantowns remaining in the United States -- is being transformed by a multicultural wave of residents and businesses. Although the diversity is welcomed, it also has raised concerns about the future of the ethnic enclave.

Enter basketball. No other single activity bonds the community more than year-round Japanese American basketball leagues, which boast as many as 10,000 youth and adult participants. Volleyball leagues draw 3,000 additional participants. The sports leagues have become an enormous social and cultural phenomenon, in which Japanese Americans share far-flung friendships -- and such quintessential community snacks as Spam and seaweed rice balls.

Backers hope the center will kindle a deep connection to Little Tokyo among young Japanese Americans that will inspire them to support and preserve the neighborhood.

"We want Japanese American young people to see this as their place and space and have a personal connection to Little Tokyo," Watanabe said. "If they do, they'll care about its future."

Fifth-grader Sarah Johnson, who attended the council meeting Tuesday, agrees.

Sarah, who lives in Arcadia, has played with the Pasadena Bruins, a historically Japanese American basketball organization, since kindergarten. But she seldom goes to Little Tokyo, she said, and spends more time eating and shopping in the South Bay because that's where most of her games take place.

The Budokan project will change that.

"If they build a gym here, it will keep the community here," Sarah said.

But backers also envision that the Budokan -- which means "martial arts hall" in Japanese but has come to mean a multipurpose center -- will become the nation's premier site for international martial arts competitions. And other neighborhood residents, such as the Skid Row Streetball League, see the site as a place for them as well.

The long quest for the gym began at a 1992 community conference on cultural preservation. There, Watanabe said, San Francisco Japantown activists described how their gym had become a vibrant community center. Los Angeles gym backers initially explored a possible facility near Aliso and Temple streets.

The plans were opposed, however, by Rita Walters, the then-council member representing Little Tokyo, and by some Little Tokyo organizations that wanted the space for an arts park instead.

The 2001 election of Jan Perry to fill Walter's 9th Council District seat broke the logjam. A gym supporter, Perry suggested the current location and led the way in shepherding the project, which she said would generate $2 million in net new tax revenue and more than 150 jobs.

"It will be a real boon for the economy and tourism," she said.

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teresa.watanabe@latimes.com

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