SLC may speed up plans to beautify this historic neighborhood

Award-winning designs to remake Japantown include cherry blossoms, nods to Asian heritage and a refreshed home for cultural festivals.

(GSBS Architects) Rendering of draft street designs and light fixtures proposed for Japantown in downtown Salt Lake City.

Downtown Salt Lake City might see an appealing face-lift of cherry blossoms and heritage for the old neighborhood known as Japantown sooner than expected.

The block of 100 South between 200 West and 300 West behind the Salt Palace Convention Center holds what little is left of a historic and once thriving enclave of Asian American culture in Utah’s capital.

After almost six years of talks and community outreach, the City Council is exploring ways to speed up an estimated $15 million refresh of Japantown’s remnant block, still home to the Japanese Church of Christ, Salt Lake Buddhist Temple and a memorial Japanese garden.

(GSBS Architects) Rendering of draft street designs and place-making elements proposed for Japantown in Salt Lake City. The one-block cultural hub is envisioned along downtown Salt Lake City’s 100 South between 200 and 300 West next to the Salt Palace, in honor of what was once a thriving neighborhood for Utah’s Japanese American residents.

Brewing since 2018, the plans call for transforming the drab stretch overshadowed by loading docks and concrete walls into a new attraction centered on themes of beauty, remembrance, respect, celebration and gathering.

Council members called Tuesday for a review of whether the city might bond for the improvement project, solicit funds from Salt Lake County or even piggyback on efforts to build a new stadium downtown for funding to make the Japantown remake happen faster.

“It’s really important to me, and it means a lot,” said council member Darin Mano, a fourth-generation Japanese American, as he thanked colleagues for supporting the moves.

With a presence going back to at least 1907, the area bounded by State Street and 700 West between South Temple and 300 South teemed at its peak around World War II with noodle houses, hotels, variety stores, laundries, grocers, fishmongers, tofu makers and other vendors catering to the needs of the state’s first waves of Asian immigrants.

(The Salt Lake Tribune) An undated photograph of a couple in Japantown in Salt Lake City.

Most of that got knocked down and built over in a trend of so-called urban renewal two generations ago, when the Salt Palace first went up.

The city’s latest award-winning renewal plan for Japantown grew out of city-led talks begun six years ago when the high-rise hotel and apartment development of what’s called The West Quarter to the northwest threatened to overwhelm the block.

The first major phase of West Quarter is now completed, with two high-rise hotels, eateries and new apartments, as well as a new midblock walkway that connects into the Japantown block’s west end and extends west to the Delta Center.

Renderings of The West Quarter project in Salt Lake City's downtown. (Courtesy The Ritchie Group)

Plans crafted in partnership with GSBS Architects, developers with Ritchie Group, Asian American community leaders and other stakeholders call for an infusion of architectural and historical touches, public art, new blossoming trees and landscaping, benches and other improvements aimed at renewing it as a community hub and festival venue.

Design guidelines for Japantown developed by Salt Lake City-based GSBS and the city’s Redevelopment Agency through community outreach won the 2023 award for planning excellence from the Utah chapter of the American Planning Association.

City officials will be sharing details again at this year’s Nihon Matsuri Japan Festival on April 27, one of several community celebrations held annually on the block.

(GSBS Architects, via Salt Lake City) The Obon Festival in Salt Lake City, which happens annually in what remains of the city’s Japantown neighborhood. A one-block cultural hub is envisioned along 100 South between 200 and 300 West next to the Salt Palace, in honor of what was once a thriving neighborhood for Utah’s Japanese American residents.

Between slow-moving community negotiations and tight municipal budgets, though, any major city spending on Japantown had been pushed to past 2025 — until this week.

And while community engagement has unfolded, estimated construction costs have jumped from $7.5 million to at least twice that, according to Danny Walz, chief operating officer for the city’s Redevelopment Agency.

An RDA taxing district created around the area, known as Block 67, is unlikely to generate enough money to fund the multiphased improvements by itself, Walz and others said.

“There has been so much work done and so much community input,” said council member Alejandro Puy, “it will be disappointing to wait too long to make this happen.”