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Plans unveiled for revamp of SLC's historic Japantown

Posted at 11:11 PM, Apr 23, 2021
and last updated 2021-04-25 00:47:53-04

SALT LAKE CITY — In a tucked away area of Downtown Salt Lake City behind the Salt Palace, the one block long Japantown Street comes alive each spring with the sounds of taiko drums and shakuhachi Japanese bamboo flutes.

People crowd onto the street for Nihon Matsuri, to enjoy traditional Japanese music and dancing, as well as taste delicious Japanese food and browse the vendors.

This weekend's festival is online because of COVID-19.

On Friday, construction noises from future apartment and hotel complexes permeated the area around Japantown Street instead.

Without the festival, there isn't much to do or see on the street. But it didn't use to be that way, as retired 3rd District Court Judge Raymond Uno remembers.

"Whenever we wanted to have a meeting or do something we would say, 'I'll meet you in J-town,'" Judge Uno recalled. "And everybody knew where J-town was, because that's where everybody used to congregate."

J-town used to be a vibrant, bustling area that spanned blocks and featured housing, restaurants, shops, pool halls, banks and other businesses.

That is, until the Salt Palace Convention Center came along in the 1960s.

"When they built the Salt Palace and destroyed Japantown, I really got a little bit upset," Judge Uno said. "Because there was no place for Japanese to go, because they just took the heart of the community away."

PHOTO GALLERY: Historic photos of SLC's "Japantown"

The construction of the Salt Palace tore Japantown down to one, single block of 100 South. State Senator Jani Iwamoto said every single business except for two shut down. The two surviving businesses relocated to other areas of the city, and only one-- Japan Sage Market at 1515 S Main St-- remains today.

Only three buildings related to Japantown occupy the street.

The Japanese Church of Christ, built in 1924, is still standing. The Salt Lake Buddhist Temple stands on the other side of the street, at the other end of Japantown Street. Next to it is another Salt Lake Buddhist Temple building, which houses the temple's bookstore, Lumbini's Garden.

Other than that, the street is lined by the concrete loading docks for the Salt Palace. A new apartment building several stories tall is currently being built on the street as well, though Sen. Iwamoto said the backside of the apartment building will face Japantown Street.

It's not exactly a place for the community to congregate.

"You just want this to be open because this is a time where we can share our cultures with everyone," Iwamoto said.

She sits on the Japanese Community Preservation Committee (JCPC). Beginning in about 2008, she said, they began work to revamp the area.

First, came renaming the street Japantown Street. The Salt Palace changed some of its loading dock gates to Japanese-inspired metal designs and installed Japanese-style roof tiles on top of the concrete wall along the sidewalk. A small Japanese garden was built between the Salt Palace and the Japanese Church of Christ.

Now, they're ready for the next step in revitalizing the area.

"Now it's really great, because we're looking towards the future," Iwamoto said.

J-town could be coming back, in a sense.

"It's a way to remember it, but then to look ahead," Iwamoto said. "And that's the most important thing."

Plans unveiled to the Salt Lake City Redevelopment Agency show a colorful and distinct Japantown Street, with Cherry Blossom trees, historical markers, a large origami crane metal sculpture, new lighting, Japanese-themed design elements, and pedestrian walkways.

There are plans for festival layouts as well.

"One of the things that we work with the city on, in terms of this plan, is to make this street much more conducive to holding festivals," said Rolen Yoshinaga, who is on the JCPC with Iwamoto.

He said Japantown Street is dangerous because of trucks constantly going in and out of the Salt Palace loading docks, and cars tending to use the street as a quick shortcut. That paired with the width, makes it difficult for pedestrians to cross.

Yoshinaga talked about wanting to address the safety aspects first, before incorporating the fun design elements.

He said they don't have a timeline yet to complete the three-phase plan.

The JCPC will be looking for public and private partnerships, community support and funding to help make those designs a reality. Yoshinaga indicated that funding will create a huge challenge.

But having the renderings is a huge step, he said, because they have a vision.

"Eventually it'll be a very recognizable place," He said. "Yeah," Iwamoto echoed. "We want it to be a place-- a welcoming place-- for the entire state, you know. And I think it will be."

A place for the Japanese community to gather once again, just like Judge Uno remembers.

"Although we don't have everything we want, at least there is something," Judge Uno said, adding, "We can say, 'Hey! This is Japantown.'"

Renderings of the project: (Courtesy of GSBS Architects)

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Renderings of "Japantown" in Salt Lake City