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Japantown Plaza comes a step closer to long-awaited redesign: ‘We have to do it right this time’

Few people are seen sitting in the Peace Plaza in Japantown on Thursday, February 25, 2021 in San Francisco. | Lea Suzuki/The San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images

“Pretty is not a word I would use,” Richard Tokeshi said. “Stark is more the word.” 

The Japantown artist was referring to the overwhelmingly concrete Peace Plaza—a historically important but, at least for many community members, an aesthetically unpleasing landmark—in the cultural district. 

Tokeshi has been involved in San Francisco’s Japantown as an artist since the early 1970s. He walks across the Peace Plaza every Thursday and Saturday to teach art classes for the Japanese Cultural and Community Center at Buchanan Mall, whose entrance faces the public square. 

“It’s not very inviting to people,” Tokeshi told The Standard.

Even a co-chair of the Peace Plaza, Richard Hashimoto, regards the space with a lack of enthusiasm. 

“It’s all concrete,” he said. “It’s a hard-scape.” 

With a windfall of money on the way, however, the plaza may get a long-awaited makeover.

Assemblymember Phil Ting at a press conference to announce additional funding from the California budget for Japantown’s Peace Plaza redesign in San Francisco’s Japantown on Sept. 20, 2022. | Olivia Cruz Mayeda/The Standard

After decades of advocacy, efforts to redesign the Peace Plaza to the community’s liking are finally gaining momentum. On Tuesday morning, Assemblymember Phil Ting announced a $6 million increase for renovating the Peace Plaza, bringing the projected total to $33.5 million. 

“This is the heart of our Japanese American community here in San Francisco,” Ting said, “Unfortunately, this plaza is a symbol of what was lost, but the rest of the community that remains is still here as a symbol of what stayed.”

Located between Post Street and Geary Boulevard, the plaza has served as a gathering space for decades. It’s played host to vibrant celebrations like the Nihonmachi Street Fair and the Northern California Cherry Blossom Festival. It’s home to organizations like the Japanese Community Youth Council and the National Japanese American Historical Society. 

But since the plaza’s construction by the San Francisco Department of Public Works in 1968, many community members have felt that the drabness of the space has failed to do justice to its historic significance. 

Though meant to symbolize cultural restoration following the incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II, the plaza was designed with little input from the community. It was built at a time when the San Francisco Redevelopment Agency was also displacing Black and Japanese American families and businesses in the area. 

“Many people … do not understand that our community lost generational wealth not once, but twice,” Hashimoto said. 

A scene from San Francisco’s Japantown Peace Plaza on Sept. 20, 2022. | Olivia Cruz Mayeda/The Standard

Rather than serving as a meaningful acknowledgement of harm, the Peace Plaza—at least in its current form—continues a legacy of neglect for many Japanese Americans. Even the latest renovation of the space in 2001 was met with widespread disapproval. 

“This is nothing for us to be proud of,” Hashimoto said.

In addition to being an eyesore, the plaza has also been leaking water into the parking garage below. 

Assemblymember Matt Haney, whose district includes Japantown, joined Ting to announce the additional funding on Tuesday. They met under the plaza’s looming Peace Pagoda, alongside Hashimoto, Recreation and Parks Department Commissioner Vanita Louie and Japanese Community Youth Council Executive Director Jon Osaki. 

The added funding was needed to cover unforeseen costs due to supply chain issues, according to Osaki. 

The new design plan is yet to be finalized, but a video of animated renderings shows a plaza that’s more open by removing obstructive walls and railings and adding a reflecting pool and cherry trees. 

“The community drove this from day one,” Osaki told The Standard after Tuesday’s press conference. “It needed to be done, it needed to be done correctly and it needed to be done with the community at the table.” 

Executive Director of the Japanese Community Youth Council Jon Osaki, center, speaks at a press conference alongside Assemblymember Phil Ting, left, Parks and Recreation and Park Department Commissioner Vanita Louie, right. | Olivia Mayeda/The Standard

Along with Japantown organizations, the SF Recreation and Parks Department has surveyed over 700 people and held community meetings for input into the designs. 

“This is a project that is long-destined to happen,” Louie said. 

“You know,” she went on to say, “I almost got arrested here. I did rallies here. I went to high school a few blocks from here. We do everything in this heartbeat park.”

The botched history of the Peace Plaza has left some worried that even the new design plans will fall short of community aspirations. 

Karen Kai, a third-generation Japanese American who attended the event and has been coming to Japantown for decades, said she’s particularly concerned about how the aesthetic will integrate key symbols in the community’s history. 

“What I would have liked to see more of, though, is more real community participation, as opposed to a kind of a model where folks from the city and this select committee come up with a plan and say, ‘Do you like this or not?’” Kai told The Standard. 

The design stage for the Peace Plaza renovation is well underway, and construction is set to begin in early 2024. 

“What we’re here today to say is that Japantown will be a permanent and essential part of San Francisco’s future,” Haney said. “That means we have to do it right this time.”