Downtown SLC revitalization talks fuel questions over Japantown future

May 8, 2024, 8:32 AM | Updated: 2:35 pm

SALT LAKE CITY — Advocates for Salt Lake City’s Japantown paid close attention to a Salt Lake City Council work session Tuesday, with questions about how the future of their community factors into a downtown revitalization plan discussed at the meeting.

The plan, spearheaded by the Smith Entertainment Group, proposes transforming three downtown blocks, including the Delta Center and two blocks east of it. One of the blocks lines the north side of Japantown Street between 300 West and 200 West.

For the past 60 years, the Salt Lake Buddhist Temple has been one of the main pieces of Japantown Street and is one of three buildings on the street dedicated to Utah’s Japanese American community.

The Salt Lake Buddhist Temple hosts weekly services and serves as a venue and meeting space for other community organizations. The building and its courtyard are filled with people during festivals and Japanese community events.

“Those people who built it were thinking about the future,” said Rolen Yoshinaga, a member of the temple’s board of directors. “And here we are standing in that future today with that, with what the vision that they had.”

Yoshinaga hopes a different vision from decades ago, doesn’t repeat.

“It would be nice if we could avoid making the same mistake twice,” he said.

He’s talking about the plan for the area that now houses the Salt Palace Convention Center. That part of downtown used to be the original Japantown but was demolished in the 1960s by the government, with many businesses forced to shut down to make way for development.

Japantown was condensed to a single street that spans one block, which was then turned into the loading docks and backside area for the Salt Palace Convention Center.

The Salt Lake Buddhist Temple, with the Salt Palace loading docks in the background (KSL TV).

Jani Iwamoto, a founding member of the Japanese Community Preservation Committee, is well-versed in the history.

“When it was destroyed back then, with over 90 structures taken mostly by eminent domain, it was prior to an Olympics (bid) as well,” she said.

Iwamoto attended the Salt Lake City Council work session Tuesday, listening as SEG updated the Salt Lake City Council on its plan to revitalize downtown. The discussion included talk of the future NHL team and hosting the Olympics.

A rendering of the plan, which SEG said was not meant to be an actual site plan, shows a walkable street east of the Delta Center lined by new buildings and multi-use spaces. The Japanese Church of Christ, a historic building dating back to the early 1900s, is located on that block.

It’s unclear what the plan would propose along Japantown Street.

“We don’t want them to just think it’s going to be another loading dock,” Yoshinaga said.

It’s also unclear how the Japanese Church of Christ building fits into the plan.

At the meeting, Mike Maughan, principal lead on the project for SEG, talked about the future potential district focusing on four areas: sports, entertainment, culture and convention.

“For us to have a thriving downtown core, it has to have all of those different pieces,” he said. “That’s why we’re very committed, to everyone working together on this process.”

A revitalization rendering shown at Tuesday’s Salt Lake City Council work session, with Japantown Street out-of-view behind the two-story buildings on the left side (Smith Entertainment Group)

Both Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall and Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson touched upon the importance of Japantown.

Mendenhall said she’s interested in discussing how community assets could be expanded or enhanced.

“We haven’t even scratched the surface of the conversation beyond the pieces that the city owns road and the right-of-way,” she said, referencing the right-of-way of Japantown Street itself.

Wilson said there has not been any mention of wanting to tear down churches.

“Frankly, there’s only upside right now compared to where we are for the Japanese community, and I look forward to engagement in the months to come as we figure this out together,” she said.

Maughan said they will be listening to community feedback and soliciting it.

“We are not leaving the table,” he said.

Iwamoto said there are things she’s wary of, but she’s glad there’s an interest.

“There seems to be a commitment to it, but we just have to be careful and just be sure that we have a seat at the table the whole way,” she said.

A view of Japantown Street, with the Japanese Church of Christ in the foreground and the Delta Center behind it across 300 West. (KSL TV)

Yoshinaga said he believes the views expressed at the meeting that Japantown could benefit from the revitalization could be flipped, and instead, consideration be given to how Japantown could be an asset to the plan.

“I think they should kind of reverse their view and maybe change their perspective and think about, can we make Japantown benefit the Smith Entertainment Group?” he expressed.

Yoshinaga hopes the plan will include businesses actually on Japantown Street and not just having Japantown as the backside of the revitalization plan. He talked about wanting to see Japanese architectural elements that can enhance and revive the area.

“So that they could have — whether it’s entertainment, whether it’s retail, whatever it is — that those businesses would look like they were sitting inside of a Japantown environment,” he suggested.

He said if the plan incorporated that, and if Salt Lake City maintains a commitment to the street, then he believes they’ll have a viable Japantown.

“I think it’s important for us as a church here to not think about short-term profits, short-term gains,” Yoshinaga said. “But to think about people who will be looking at our decisions 60 years from now… and thinking we did the right thing.”

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Downtown SLC revitalization talks fuel questions over Japantown future