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Landmark status may be in store for Japantown’s Peace Pagoda

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A proposal to designate Japantown’s Peace Pagoda as a San Francisco landmark will be voted on today by the Historic Preservation Commission. (Jessica Christian/S.F. Examiner)
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The five-tiered Peace Pagoda that’s emblematic of San Francisco’s Japantown could become the first historic landmark designated within the cultural district for its association with Japanese American History.

Following months of delay, a proposal to designate the monument at 1610 Geary St., which was gifted to The City by Japan as a sign of friendship some five decades ago, will head before the Historic Preservation Commission today.

Two other Japanese-American sites — the Kinmon Gakuen and the Japantown YWCA buildings — are currently on The City’s landmark designation work program and will likely move forward “at some point in 2018,” Planning Department spokesperson Gina Simi said.

Several other buildings have been distinguished as landmarks in the Japanese cultural enclave, roughly spanning from California Street to Geary Boulevard and Fillmore Street to Octavia Street. Though identified as landmarks, those sites are not explicitly designated for their association with Japanese-American history, Simi said.

In June, the commission adopted a resolution that would recommend the Peace Pagoda and its surrounding Peace Plaza to be designated a historic landmark to the Board of Supervisors. But a vote on the resolution was delayed after board President London Breed, whose district includes Japantown, voiced concerns over potential impacts the landmark designation could have on future repairs to the plaza.

On Tuesday, Breed said that while she supports designating the Peace Pagoda as a landmark, the plaza is in “serious need of rehabilitation.”

A translated dedication plaque on the Peace Pagoda reads, “This Peace Pagoda was given to the People of America from the People of Japan as a token of friendship between two countries – March 28, 1968.”

The pagoda was donated by Osaka, San Francisco’s Japanese sister city, and came on the heels of a Western Addition Redevelopment project that demolished “the core of historic Japantown,” according to documents filed with the Planning Department.

The pagoda and plaza have served as community gathering points and hosted cultural events, such as the Cherry Blossom Festival and Nihonmachi Street Fair. Though their construction was once associated “with the bitterness of redevelopment,” the pagoda and plaza are among the most visibly identifying features of Japantown, according to the Planning Department.

Talks of granting the Peace Pagoda landmark status through The City’s historic preservation process began in 2013 and initially included the Peace Plaza — a 160-foot-by-197-foot public park in which the Pagoda is set — as part of the proposal.

Any alterations to a historic landmark would be subject to additional review by the preservation commission, Preservation Commission President Andrew Wolfrom said. Ongoing maintenance issues have prompted Breed’s office and Japantown community groups to oppose the Peace Plaza’s landmark designation.

Last month, the proposal was revised to delay the landmark designation of the plaza to allow for future repairs, but to move ahead with the designation of the pagoda.

“The community expressed interest in landmarking the Pagoda Fountain and not necessarily the plaza,” Breed said. “They are interested in a complete rehab, and there are concerns that landmarking the plaza could impose restrictions on a redesign and drive up the cost.”

Simi said, “There’s been an ongoing problem of a water leak in the garage below the plaza when it rains,” but added that her department has not received any plans or time lines for renovation work. Planning documents also cite accessibility issues at the plaza.

The plaza falls under the jurisdiction of the Recreation and Park Department, which is “working closely with the Japantown community to discuss the best approach on what is next for the Peace Plaza,” according to spokesperson Connie Chan.

Solutions could include “a short-term fix to repair the current condition of the aging plaza, or long-term planning to improve the space,” she said.

Breed said her office is also working on finding “creative funding sources” for the plaza’s rehabilitation and is prioritizing the project on The City’s Capital Planning Committee.

“I’m hoping to have a plan and funding secured before I leave office,” she said.

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