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Salt Palace plan called death knell for 'Japan Town'

The fast-tracked expansion of the Salt Palace Convention Center hit a speed bump Tuesday as several dozen members of the city's Japanese-American community voiced opposition at a public hearing.

The remnants of the city's once-thriving Japan Town now rest on 100 South, between 200 West and 300 West, in the form of two churches — the Salt Lake Japanese Buddhist Temple and the Salt Lake Japanese Church of Christ.

But early expansion plans indicate 100 South may be narrowed, taking away parking and some trees. Also, large semitrailer trucks may frequent 100 South to load and unload cargo in the expanded convention center. Also, there are concerns the towering convention center could eclipse the nearby churches.

"We have grave concerns about what is happening with the expansion of the Salt Palace," Floyd Mori told the City Council. "We feel that the planning and approval process is somewhat flawed in that we have had basically no notice or participation in this process."

Indeed, the process has been swift. Salt Lake County officials need to break ground on the expansion project by December in order to complete it before the Outdoor Retailers summer convention in August.

The expansion of 150,000 square feet of meeting space was designed to appease the retailers, who hold two lucrative conventions in Salt Lake City each year. The retailers had threatened to move their convention elsewhere unless the Salt Palace was expanded.

Eventually, Salt Lake County and city officials approved an expansion plan — which likely will need a tax increase from the state Legislature — and the retailers decided to stay in Salt Lake City for five more years.

Tuesday's public hearing centered on a zoning change to accommodate the expansion. The council approved the technical zoning change. But next week, council members will have to decide on the larger issue of whether to allow the county to close or narrow 100 South to accommodate the expansion.

Diane Akiama said the council shouldn't move forward because it would injure Utah's Japanese community, which uses the two churches for cultural gatherings and festivals.

"The way the construction is organized now, it would be the death knell for those two churches and the Japanese-American community in Salt Lake City," she said.

A pair of representatives from the Salt Palace were on hand and promised to work with the community to resolve some outstanding issues. Mori said community members did meet with acting Salt Lake County Mayor Alan Dayton and are now working with the county on the expansion plans.

Some council members said they won't approve any closure or narrowing of 100 South to accommodate the expansion unless the Japanese community's issues are resolved.