Status of memorial to Japanese World War II detainees faces legal challenge

A stylized aerial view of the Tuna Canyon Detention Station. More than 1,000 people of Japanese descent were held at the Tuna Canyon Detention Station, before transferred to longer-stay camps further inland or out-of-state.
A stylized aerial view of the Tuna Canyon Detention Station. More than 1,000 people of Japanese descent were held at the Tuna Canyon Detention Station, before transferred to longer-stay camps further inland or out-of-state. David Scott/The Scott Family and Little Landers Historical Society

A developer is suing the city of Los Angeles for granting special status to a planned memorial on its property intended to recognize Japanese held by the U.S. government during World War II. 

Snowball West Investments said that a one-acre parcel set aside for the memorial to the former Tuna Canyon detention station does not warrant the "Historic-Cultural Monument" label that would subject proposed construction on the site to extra review.

Supporters of the memorial, who include Japanese-American leaders and neighborhood activists, said they were stunned by the lawsuit, given that they had met four times with the developer after city councilors granted the historic status in late June.

Snowball West said that although Tuna Canyon used to stand on its property, no structures remain. Construction crews razed buildings in 1960 to make way for the Verdugo Hills Golf Course that Snowball bought in 2004, as part of a 58-acre purchase.

"When there is no historical structure, this law is not the appropriate law, and it puts a whole set of bureaucratic requirements on the property that are unnecessary," said Fred Gaines, attorney for Snowball West, which filed its complaint with Los Angeles Superior Court on Wednesday. 

The complaint noted that city's historic experts had recommended against giving the memorial historic status.

Gaines said that Snowball West had planned to have a commemorative site on the property in the general area as the space designated by the city, although it would be three-quarters of an acre.

But advocates of historic status for the Tuna Canyon memorial said the designation is needed to hold Snowball West to its word, and to give activists leverage to apply for federal grants for the memorial.

"We were all aghast," said Cindy Cleghorn, a board member of the Sunland-Tujunga Neighborhood Council, after hearing about the lawsuit. "It just punched us, it was a very unsettling feeling."

Gaines countered that activists such as Cleghorn have for years opposed Snowball West's plans to turn part of its property into a residential community.

"The people who want to use this to try and stop the development are trying to grab at anything they can that they think might help them," Gaines said. 

But Japanese-American activist Nancy Oda said that partners in the Sunland-Tujunga area have been "very, very sincere" in their desire to recognize people of Japanese descent who had been interned without reason by the federal government during World War II, such as herself. 

"We have benefited greatly as a community to bring awareness to the historical context of the Tuna Canyon detention center," Oda said. 

A spokesman for the L.A. City Attorney's Office said he could not comment on a pending lawsuit. The city has 30 days to answer the complaint. 

The lawsuit also names former city councilor Richard Alarcon as a defendant. Alarcon, the councilor who spearheaded the effort to obtain historic status for the Tuna Canyon memorial, could not be reached for comment Friday. 

Pending the lawsuit, Oda said that she and other activists plan on creating a non-profit to begin work on fundraising and designing the memorial. 

Gaines said, in the meantime, Snowball West's plan for a memorial would include parking and a 100-foot walkway, lined by interpretative displays with "writings, photos that you would see at a museum or national park." The walkway would lead into an oak grove and end in a large circle girded by benches and artwork, Gaines said.

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