EL CERRITO -- Proponents of honoring the history of Japanese Americans in West Contra Costa are making their voices heard on a plan to build low-income senior housing on a site that was once home of a historic florist shop.
The 63-unit housing complex, planned for a site on San Pablo Avenue just south of El Cerrito City Hall, would be built by Hayward-based nonprofit Eden Housing, which held a community meeting Wednesday to discuss the project and its historic aspects.
The building that housed the florist shop would be part of the complex. But an adjoining home once occupied by the Mabuchi family, which ran the shop before and after World War II, would be torn down and replaced by a courtyard to be used by the complex's residents.
The fate of the home and shop are especially sensitive to Japanese American residents and historical preservation advocates, in part because the Mabuchis were sent to an internment camp for Japanese Americans during the war.
During World War II, the owner of the now-closed Tradeway furniture store next door preserved the shop for the Mabuchis, who re-established their business when they returned to El Cerrito after the war. The Tradeway property was acquired by the city and will be torn down to make way for the complex.
Eden plans to convert the florist shop into a workout room and bicycle storage area, but opponents of the plan want it used as a museum dedicated to the history of Japanese American residents and their role in the local flower-growing industry.
Eden intends to make up for razing the home by creating an as-yet undetermined historical display in a plaza to be built on the opposite side of the complex from the florist shop, a plan that doesn't satisfy critics.
"The proposed historical mitigation doesn't come close to compensating for the loss of the home in the back of the florist shop," said Tom Panas of the El Cerrito Historical Society during a meeting Wednesday at City Hall with Eden representatives to discuss historic aspects of the project.
El Cerrito resident Laura Iiyama, a member of the Contra Costa Japanese American Citizens League, and Tom Yamashita, a descendant of the operators of a Japanese flower-growing business in Richmond, joined Panas in appealing to Eden to do more.
Iiyama noted the U.S. government settlement for $1.3 billion in reparations for Japanese Americans who were interned as evidence of the historical significance of the building.
"It could be a place where people can come to experience history rather than be converted into a gym," she said.
Yamashita called the plan to use the shop as a workout room "almost a slap in the face" to Japanese Americans.
"We envision the story (of the internment) being told in the building," Yamashita said. "We're looking to make it a museum."
A few suggestions for compromises came out of the meeting, including using the front windows of the florist shop for a historical display that could be viewed from the outside and preserving the windows of the Mabuchi home by incorporating them into the structure of the new complex.
Eden project manager Woody Karp said the home's windows would not meet the city's energy-efficiency standards if used in a functioning way but added that the developer is open to any suggestions about how to improve the project.
Karp said the El Cerrito project is the first in his memory that involves Eden, which owns and operates 7,000 low-income units in Northern California, with preserving a historic structure.
"It's not common that we have a site with a culturally significant history," he said.
Eden is scheduled to make a similar presentation before the city Planning Commission on Wednesday. The meeting is at 7:30 p.m. at City Hall, 10890 San Pablo Ave.
A draft environmental impact report on the project is available at www.el-cerrito.org. A public comment period on the draft EIR ends Oct. 10.