Downtown Salt Lake City could soon be revitalized. What does that mean for 'Japantown'?


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SALT LAKE CITY — Utah's mining and railroad growth in the late 1800s attracted thousands of Japanese immigrants to Utah, many of whom settled in a section of Salt Lake City still known today as "Japantown."

By all accounts, the neighborhood was a thriving community tucked into the western side of downtown.

"(It had) restaurants and community centers, pool halls and dry cleaning — a whole community," said former state senator Jani Iwamoto, a founding member of the Japanese Community Preservation Committee whose parents lived in the neighborhood.

However, Japantown has shrunk over the years as a result of city growth, but also discrimination.

What was originally defined as a section from South Temple to 400 South, State Street to 700 West, is now about a block in size on 100 South between 200 West and 300 West. As noted by the Salt Lake City Downtown Alliance, the neighborhood "drastically changed" during World War II. Many community leaders were "harassed, detained and sent to internment camps" in the 1940s.

While the area brought in people banned from living on the West Coast during this time and some returned to the area after the war, the creation of the Salt Palace Convention Center — through eminent domain — wiped out most of what was left by the 1960s. The Salt Lake Buddhist Temple and the Japanese Church of Christ are about all that's left of the historic settlement today.

Salt Lake City had unveiled plans to revitalize what's left of Japantown a few years ago, but the neighborhood's future is now back in the spotlight with the Legislature's passage of a bill that could pave the way for a new Delta Center located a block away.

Members of the Redevelopment Agency of Salt Lake City board, which are also all Salt Lake City Council members, revisited a plan to revitalize the area during a meeting Tuesday afternoon. There, they discussed what's next for the project and possible ways to fund it.

City leaders are seeking to find a way to create a new arena and downtown experience without bulldozing what's left of the historic Japantown neighborhood, Salt Lake City Councilman Darin Mano told KSL-TV on Tuesday.

"I'm really optimistic about it," he said. "It could be the coolest thing I've ever worked on as a city council member. It could be my biggest heartbreak, too."

Revitalizing Japantown

Salt Lake City's plan to revitalize Japantown began in 2018. Corinne Piazza, a senior project manager for the Salt Lake City RDA, said members of the Japanese American community approached the city with concerns the project would turn what's left of the neighborhood into an alleyway much like other projects that have ripped out the historic area's buildings.

The city ultimately turned to GSBS Architects two years later to help Salt Lake City's RDA compile a visioning process for the area with these concerns in mind. Renderings of a revised 100 South between 200 West and 300 West filled with cherry blossoms and other landscaping, benches and wider sidewalks emerged in April 2021.

A rendering of a reimagined 100 South at Japantown that was released in 2021. The project has been mostly dormant since then.
A rendering of a reimagined 100 South at Japantown that was released in 2021. The project has been mostly dormant since then. (Photo: GSBS Architects via Redevelopment Agency of Salt Lake City)

"(The) visions and goals were to preserve future economic development and tourism opportunities for the community, allow the churches to grow and thrive, and preserve and create something for future generations of Japanese Americans," she said. (It would) also create placemaking, design a festival street, create a non-church-related gathering place and improve walkability."

But that was the last major update and a lot has changed since then.

A tax increment plan designed to pay for the project hasn't gathered enough money to fund it yet, according to Mano. Many City Council seats have also changed since then and most of Tuesday's meeting centered around providing newer council members a refresher on what the city has in mind for the area.

About $400,000 for initial construction documents and public art projects are proposed in the RDA's 2025 fiscal year budget. The entire was originally slated to cost about $7.5 million in 2020; however, RDA officials say it's likely almost double that now.

Mano suggested the agency look at bonds to speed up the construction process, given the importance of the project and rising costs. That is to be determined.

"My hope is that we can dust off that plan and figure out how to fund it now," he said.

Revitalizing downtown

It's also unclear yet how SB272 plays into all of this. Gov. Spencer Cox signed the bill on Tuesday, which sets up a downtown revitalization zone up to 100 acres surrounding the Delta Center.

The bill allows for the Salt Lake City Council to approve a sales tax increment of up to 0.5% for 30 years to repay bonds issued for a new arena and general downtown improvements. The City Council has yet to decide whether to adopt the tax increase and the zone's boundary has yet to be drawn up by local, state and private entities.

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While the bill focuses on the arena and places like the Salt Palace Convention Center, it leaves open the options for other parts of the city like Japantown. Iwamoto said she's "pretty sure" the area will be included in the zone because of its proximity to the Delta Center.

That's why city leaders believe it's the perfect time to revisit the Japantown plan.

The city is currently focused on the public right of way — something that doesn't need any state approval — but Mano said he hopes it could spark discussions on how to better improve the historic city section. He says he would like to see a way to balance the city's plan for Japantown with the goals outlined in SB272.

"If we can fold Japantown into this vision of a better downtown and a sports entertainment district, and all three of those things can happen simultaneously, I'm very open to however we need to fund that," he said. "Those are huge goals that I would support."

He adds he wouldn't support any measure that would demolish what's left of the historic neighborhood.

Iwamoto is at least cautiously optimistic about it. She said city leaders have assured there will be no eminent domain in the future like what was done in the 1960s. But she hopes Utah's Japanese American community will be given a seat at the table as the future of downtown goes through a makeover, based on what happened before.

"We always have to keep on our toes," she said. "People are always on guard because of what happened in the past."

Contributing: Lindsay Aerts

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Carter Williams is a reporter who covers general news, local government, outdoors, history and sports for KSL.com.

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