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Monday, July 30, 2001

Kinshicho struggles to escape from Sogo's shadow


Staff writer

In the afternoon heat of midsummer, few people pass by a 10-story building bearing the Sogo logo -- even though it is in a prime location in front of JR Kinshicho station in Tokyo's Sumida Ward. The dusty shutter at the main entrance hasn't been opened for seven months, and the local community is still waiting to see who the next tenant will be.

The Kinshicho Sogo department store once attracted an estimated 17,000 shoppers a day, but it fell to the ax along with eight other Sogo outlets under a rehabilitation plan by failed retail giant Sogo Co.

When it opened in October 1997, many in the neighborhood hoped the department store would serve as a core facility for the newly built Arca Towers multipurpose complex, drawing in bustling crowds and the resultant prosperity. Today, however, the empty building casts a big shadow -- not only on the ground but on the local community as well.

"I really wish the new tenant will be found as soon as possible," said Yukio Osada, owner of a nearby grocery store specializing in dry foods. When Kinshicho Sogo was still in business, Osada said, people living along the JR Sobu Line came to shop there and stopped in at his store. The impact of the closure is severe, he said.

Kazunari Enoki, who ran an "okonomiyaki" restaurant on the 10th floor of the Sogo building, said, "It was a serious blow, as I had made substantial investments on the interior of my restaurant." He tried to continue even after the department store closed in December but managed to stay afloat only a short time.

Following Sogo's closure, Nippon Life Insurance Co., which owns 60 percent of the building and the land underneath, has yet to name any new tenants. Speaking before the ward assembly in June, Sumida Ward Mayor Noboru Yamazaki pledged his utmost efforts to find a quick solution.

"I will request Nippon Life to decide on a new tenant so that we'll see a new operator starting business before the end of this year," he said.

French retailer Carrefour SA is reportedly bidding to become a tenant. But Hideo Sakata, chief of the Sumida branch of the Tokyo Chamber of Commerce and Industry, is pointing out that Carrefour intends to occupy only the bottom three floors. Nippon Life would then face the difficult task of finding other tenants to fill the remaining seven floors, he said.

"The new tenant should be a department store to fill up the entire building," Sakata said. "But it is quite difficult as that sector is in poor shape right now."

The prolonged search for the new occupant is a reflection of difficulties faced by the entire neighborhood north of JR Kinshicho Station. In terms of major development, this area has lagged behind the south side, where various commercial and entertainment facilities, including a department store, two major shopping complexes and a movie theater are concentrated.

What used to be a district of small confectioneries in the prewar era began to lose its color in the 1960s, when many quit and switched to other businesses. In the mid-1970s, local authorities conceived a plan to redevelop a parcel held by the old Japanese National Railways on the north side of the station.

The plan was given a boost in 1986, when the Tokyo Metropolitan Government selected the Kinshicho-Kameido area as one of seven Tokyo subcenters to be urbanized.

In 1990, an association was formed by the metropolitan government, Sumida Ward, local land owners and other concerned parties to decide on and carry out the redevelopment project. The Arca Towers Kinshicho complex of eight buildings -- Sogo, a concert hall, a hotel, two condominium buildings and three office buildings -- was completed in 1996 on the 4.4-hectare site.

But only three years into operations, Sogo -- a key segment of the complex -- shut down.

Kyozaburo Nishi, a Sumida Ward Assembly member belonging to the Japanese Communist Party, said the fate of Sogo Kinshicho was easy to predict because things were tough from the very start.

In searching for prospective tenants for the Arca Tower Kinshicho complex, the redevelopment association sent inquiries to 11 department store operators, but not one evidenced interest, he said.

Sogo's decision to open there came only after then Sumida Ward Mayor Sumio Okuyama persuaded Hiroo Mizushima, then chairman of Sogo Co., in lengthy negotiations, Nishi said.

"Local people buy daily necessities in nearby shops and supermarkets. But when it come to clothes and other big purchases, they would go to bigger commercial centers such as Nihonbashi and Ueno, which have several department stores," he said.

Ward officials apparently believe otherwise, however, as they are boosting yet another redevelopment project -- a purely private one this time -- in the nearby area.

Tokyo Tatemono Co. and Mitsui & Co. are planning to redevelop a 27,000-sq.-meter site some 400 meters to the north of JR Kinshicho Station. A huge complex consisting of a 31-story office tower, an eight-story building housing a department store and other commercial enterprises, and a 46-story residential bloc will replace in 2005 a former Seiko Corp. factory.

For this, the developers had to seek local authorities' approval for changing the land from semi-industrial use to commercial use, but both the metropolitan government and Sumida Ward readily gave their nod.

Yukio Ogawa, a Sumida Ward official in charge of urban planning, said he expects the north side of JR Kinshicho Station will soon be transformed into a major commercial and cultural center, pointing to the planned extension of the Hanzomon subway line via Kinshicho to Oshiage in Taito Ward.

"The extension of the subway line will make this area more convenient and accessible," he said. "The potential for the (economy of the) neighborhood will be enhanced."

The subway extension is projected to double the 28.8 million passengers that now pass through JR Kinshicho Station each year, Ogawa said. Sakata, an avid promoter of the area's redevelopment, said the extension and the new commercial complex will completely change the neighborhood -- and for the better.

Combined with a Tobu rail line running northward from Oshiage and a Tokyu line stretching southward, the extended Hanzomon line will be a major north-south link running from Tochigi and Saitama prefectures to Tokyo and Yokohama, he said.

With the new Hanzomon station at Kinshicho, the area will prosper as Tokyo's true subcenter, he asserted.

Kinshicho residents, by and large, welcome the new subway station and the planned commercial complex. As for the future of Kinshicho, however, they are not as optimistic as the administrators and developers.

"We might be having a situation of oversupply of (commercial facilities), given the limited market in the area," said Shozo Hata, secretary general of the executive committee for Korekara Kinshicho, a local citizens' group concerned about the future of Kinshicho.

Some shop owners are fearful of powerful stores that could threaten their business. "Small stores like mine would have a hard time, as we cannot compete with the low prices in large stores," said Katsuhiko Shirakawa, who runs a stationary shop and chairs the small-stores association in north Kinshicho.

Yosuke Mizushima, head of the Kinshi-Sanwa neighborhood association, said he has his doubts about the subway extension's impact. "People say the subway will bring many people to Kinshicho. But things would not be so easy," he said, predicting that not many passengers will stop at Kinshicho, which is not the end of the line.

Nishi is critical of local authorities for promoting the redevelopment of Kinshicho without having a clear vision of the area's future. "A grandiose plan will not be successful in an old-fashioned 'downtown' like Kinshicho" he said.

Instead of constructing big facilities, Nishi said, local authorities should be promoting projects more suitable to the area, like helping to create an arcade lined with unique specialty stores or facilitating the formation of a cluster of small manufacturers.

"At this moment, Kinshicho does not have any character and no direction has been forged as to how the area should be developed," Mizushima said.

Local denizens should come up with their own ideas about what kind of district they would like to create, he said.



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