Pop-culture center planned to help vitalize Japantown

As Japantown celebrates its 100th anniversary, a center designed to bring the latest films and books from Japan is getting positive reviews amid concerns that the project not be delayed.

The so-called J-Pop Center is scheduled to include a cinema, bookstore and café on Post Street on the northern edge of the Japanese Cultural Center.

Tokyo-headquartered publisher Shogakukan, Inc. aims to build the pop-culture center after demolishing the office building now at 1746 Post St.

The Redevelopment Agency discussed the project Tuesday, which could break ground as soon as next spring.

“This is an exciting and valuable entertainment center to come into our community,” said Paul Osaki, director of the Japanese American Cultural and Community Center of Northern California.

Osaki said Japantown has gone through tremendous changes lately, including the sale of two hotels and malls this year.

Redevelopment Agency member Benny Yee said he hopes city staff will speed up the approval process.

Denise Blades, a development specialist with the Redevelopment Agency, wouldn’t comment on the length of the process.

The first step of the approval process is public hearings on the environmental impact report. The plans will likely come before the Board of Supervisors in the fall, after the public commnent process ends Sept. 11, Blades said.

Bringing pop culture to Japantown is a good way to transcend cultural barriers, as evidenced by the popularity of Japanese animé films, said Chris Hirano, director of community and corporate development for the Japanese Cultural and Community Center of Northern California.

“You can draw a younger audience,”Hirano said. “There is a need for community arts space.”

Plans call for a 50-foot-tall, 20,542-square-foot building, including a basement and three floors. The basement would contain 161 cinema seats and a projection booth. Along with a coffee bar and bookstore, film tickets would be sold on the ground floor. The second and third floors are designed as office and retail spaces.

“This is very good for Japantown,” said Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi, who represents the area. “It would revitalize Japantown.”

Mirkarimi said the center would likely add vitality to Japantown by drawing tourists and residents to the area. Earlier this year, the supervisor backed legislation to designate Japantown a special use district. The new law requires the Planning Commission to approve any physical changes proposed by a developer.

That legislation was approved after much of Japantown — including two malls, two hotels and a theater — was sold. The sales sparked concerns from longtime residents about the future of one of California’s remaining Japanese-American enclaves. Beverly Hills-based developer 3D Investments bought the Radisson Miyato Hotel and Best Western Miyako Inn from Kintetsu Enterprises of America after nearly 40 years of ownership, while AMC Theaters sold the Kabuki 8 movie theater to Sundance Films.