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Envisioning Little Tokyo's Future as a Cultural Ecodistrict

L.A. in Motion, a series exploring transportation equity in Los Angeles, is produced in partnership with the California Endowment.


To understand where we see the Little Tokyo neighborhood headed in the future, as what we call a Cultural Ecodistrict, you'll need some backstory about the people and the place.

The Kito family first opened the Fugetsu-do Sweet Shop in 1903 to serve a small but growing Japanese population in the East First Street district. Over 110 years later, third-generation business owner Brian Kito still operates the family business, which has survived the Great Depression, the forced internment of Japanese Americans during WWII, the Civil Unrest of 1992, and the recent Great Recession. His family's story mirrors the larger story of Los Angeles's Little Tokyo, which this year is celebrating its 130 year anniversary.

From just a few dozen immigrants in the late 1800s, as Little Tokyo first began to take shape, the enclave grew to tens of thousands within a 3 mile radius that stretched across to Boyle Heights and down to the Produce Market area. Over time, despite the disastrous effects of WWII internment and numerous periods of displacement and redevelopment, Little Tokyo settled into the outline's of the neighborhood today -- much smaller than in decades past, but in much the same location, centered around the First and San Pedro block, recognized in the Federal Register of Historic Places. Around a thousand seniors call Little Tokyo home, and another few thousand new residents have moved into new luxury condos and apartments in Little Tokyo and the neighboring Arts District.

Neighborhoods like Little Tokyo dot the corridors of Los Angeles, places that make the city hum with culture and history, and also where lower income families and seniors can still find decent housing at an affordable rent. The stories of these neighborhoods and their inhabitants need to be told and celebrated, and ought to be held up as real world models of sustainability and resilience.

Formed in the days when racial covenants restricted communities like Japanese Americans to specific tightly constrained neighborhoods, Little Tokyo remains today because many generations have labored and persevered in the face of urban renewal, redevelopment, and suburban flight. Now we find ourselves at the focal points of transit policy, told to make way for a new era of smart growth, density, and young new urbanites.

Little Tokyo Service Center (LTSC) Community Development Corporation (CDC), a neighborhood-based CDC that started in 1979, today works in partnership with over 150 other organizations representing small businesses, Japanese international businesses, arts and cultural organizations, temples and churches, residents, and youth groups within the Little Tokyo Community Council.

In the past few years, the community resisted initial proposals for an above-ground Regional Connector light-rail line that would have cut through our main commercial corridors. Together we successfully advocated for an underground line that respected the economy and viability of the neighborhood. The new Little Tokyo/Arts District Regional Connector station is expected to become one of the busiest transit stations in Los Angeles County, and we have been working hard with Metro to ensure that the station enhances Little Tokyo's cultural and historic assets.

We then realized we needed a bold community-based vision to channel the inevitable real estate investment on the acres of public parking lots surrounding the new station.

In coalition with others facing similar uncertainties, we asked ourselves the questions that Manuel Pastor and USC researchers have articulated with powerful clarity:

  • How do we achieve "just growth," and grow in a sustainable, equitable and inclusive manner as we as a region target development around transit stations and transit corridors?
  • Can historic and cultural neighborhoods remain true to their roots, or are we on a destructive path to water down these places into trendy interchangeable hotspots?
  • Don't real people matter in this quest for reductions in vehicle-miles-traveled and greenhouse gases?

To achieve equity in transportation, growth, and development, we need the boundary-breaking partnerships that define real sustainability. But we need to invest time and resources into lifting up and understanding our own stories, from the people in our own communities.

LTSC Community Development Corporation and the Little Tokyo community have spent the past 18 months doing just that. We found partners in the Natural Resources Defense Council, and in intermediaries like Enterprise Community Partners and Local Initiatives Support Corporation. Through community conversations about our ambitions and aspirations, we created a framework for sustainability that incorporates our desire to sustain a centuries old local economic base of small businesses, enhance a mature social community fabric, and embrace cutting edge green technologies to conserve resources and cut our carbon footprint.

Most importantly, it is rooted in long-held cultural and community values passed down from generation to generation. We lifted fundamental community values like "Mottainai"(what a shame to waste), "Kodomono tameni" (for future generations), and "Banbutsu" (interconnectedness) into a contemporary environmental context.

After months of preliminary meetings, last September, over a single weekend, we held a community planning and design charrette with the help of an expert team of architects, planners, engineers, and market economists. We asked participants to imagine themselves walking out of the light rail station into Little Tokyo, 20 years into the future. Our design team listened to formal and informal conversations, and together with community members sketched those ideas into a concrete range of scenarios.

Armed with decades of shelved master plans for sculpture gardens, massive skyscraper developments, and pedestrian linkage studies, we crafted an updated development vision that can achieve deep affordability targets, provide commercial and cultural facilities that enhance the neighborhood's existing assets, and open up new park and plaza spaces for formal and informal gatherings.

We are proposing an ambitious set of district-scaled green infrastructure -- district heating and cooling, stormwater collection planters, "living machine" graywater filtration landscaping, and a mini-solar electric grid.

The vision starts with a plan for equitable transit-oriented development around the new light rail station at First Street and Central Avenue. But we think it's more than just a development scheme. We are creating a model we are calling a Cultural Ecodistrict, a framework for achieving environmental sustainability targets in the context of historic and cultural neighborhood preservation. We hope to emulate what performance artist Nobuko Miyamoto and Great Leap have already begun to achieve in the arts, marrying environmental values with cultural traditions and creative vision.

Participatory planning is hard work, and to do it right it takes patience and dedication -- but it's well worth the effort. It took almost five years to get the planning of the regional connector line and station right. Another year and a half of planning to generate the community vision. And likely another 5-10 years to realize the vision.

The visioning documents can be viewed here.

See Departures: Little Tokyo for an in-depth look at the neighborhood and its history.

About the Author

Thomas Yee is the Director of Planning at the Little Tokyo Service Center, a Community Development Corporation.

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