By Stacy Nguyen
Northwest Asian Weekly
“In 1994, my dad got really sick,” said Bernie Kay. “We were going through a federal raid. It caused a lot of the old guys — my dad included — to have heart attacks from stress. My dad asked me, ‘Can you come down here [to Chinatown]? Just fill in for me. Find out what’s going on.’ I was like, ‘What? I don’t want to go down there!’ [At the time,] I had nothing to do with Chinatown — my mom kind of shielded us from it. But I came down. It was the first time I ever talked to the old guys, about this building. I remember thinking, this is kind of cool.”
“My dad died in 1995,” said Kay, who has a mechanical engineering degree. “I was voted onto the board that year.”
To those who are unfamiliar, the uninhabited top floors of the West Kong Yick building is a labyrinth-like maze in the dark. These floors used to house transient workers — Chinese men who worked on railroads, were regrading Seattle, or were heading up to work in Alaska’s canneries — gambling dens, and a brothel.
In 1910, the Jackson regrade was completed, a project that forced Seattle’s Chinese population to move from its original South Washington Street location in Pioneer Square to where it sits today, centered on King Street in the International District. Chinese immigrants opened new businesses and Seattle’s Chinatown grew. In the same year, more than 170 Chinese investors pooled their money together and established the Kong Yick Investment Company.
The company built the West and East Kong Yick buildings — the East building is currently well known for being the site of The Wing Luke Museum of the Asian Pacific American Experience. These buildings are the first Chinese-built buildings on King Street.
The West building currently houses popular businesses on the bottom floor. Residents live on one of the upper floors, but two of the four floors are vacant and need to be rehabilitated and brought up to code before they can be inhabited again.
Kay’s family descends from one of the original 1910 shareholders of the Kong Yick Investment Company. For years now, he and others, including his family members, have been gradually bringing their building back to life. But doing so has a unique set of challenges.
Earthquake proofing and historic districts
In early April of this year, building owners, such as the Kong Yick Investment Company, were notified by mail that their buildings are on a list of confirmed Unreinforced Masonry (URM) buildings. A URM is typically built prior to 1940 — in the case of the Kong Yick buildings, they were built at the turn of the century. These buildings lack the steel reinforcement and structural connections needed to stand up to seismic motion.
Currently, there are no regulations that require buildings to be retrofitted so that residents can safely exit the buildings after a quake — but this is legislation the City of Seattle is considering.
“We’re trying to understand the pros and cons of making [some form of retrofitting] mandatory,” said Bryan Stevens, spokesperson for the City of Seattle’s Department of Construction and Inspections.
“We’re exploring the financial costs. We’re trying to be vigilant as we develop the policies. The last thing we want is to make it so onerous that people will demolish instead of upgrad. That’s not what we want to see here.”
However, like Pioneer Square and Ballard, Seattle’s Chinatown is a National Register Historic District.
“We have one of the highest concentrations of URM buildings,” said Cara Bertron, Real Estate Lab Coordinator at IDEA Space, a program of the Seattle Chinatown International District Preservation & Development Authority (SCIDpda). “And the tricky thing is that because the Chinatown–International District (CID) is a historic district, west of the freeway, property owners have much more limited options as to how to respond [to mandated retrofitting]. In Capitol Hill or Queen Anne or other areas that are not historic districts, property owners can choose to retrofit, tear down their building and rebuild, or sell it. Demolition is sometimes the easier option, and you can have a [newer] bigger building [that yields higher income].
“But here in the CID, property owners [only] have the option to rehab or sell. They can’t demolish.”
However, retrofitting is expensive. And selling these Chinatown URMs, changing their ownership from Chinese American families (or shareholders) who have kept these buildings since the turn of the century, signifies a loss.
The Nisqually earthquake
On Feb. 28, 2001, at 10:54 in the morning, an intraslab earthquake with the moment magnitude of 6.8 and a depth of 35 miles hit southern Puget Sound, northeast of Olympia. Other earthquakes in the same region occurred in 1949 (magnitude 6.7, depth 31 miles) and 1965 (magnitude 6.7, depth 37 miles).
About 400 people were injured in the Nisqually quake, and the total damage incurred was $1 billion–$4 billion.
“With the Nisqually, two-thirds of the buildings that were later deemed unsafe and unfit to inhabit were URMs,” said Stevens. “And the Nisqually was a moderate earthquake.”
“[People like to] focus on the large [scary] earthquake that hasn’t happened in hundreds of years. What we’re talking about is how we can prepare for the more recent earthquakes we’ve had, the more moderate ones that happen every 20 years or so.”
Currently, the City of Seattle confirms that there are 1,164 URM buildings in the entire city.
Approximately 120 URM buildings are located in Pioneer Square and the CID, more than 10 percent of all URMs in Seattle, according to the soon-to-be released “URM-RRIO Pilot Project Report,” by SCIDpda. This also equates to about 4,000 affordable housing residential units and small businesses between both neighborhoods.
And, as Seattle continues to climb its tech boom, as it experiences an influx of new, more affluent residents to its city center downtown — the displacement of low-income households (renters primarily) in Pioneer Square and Chinatown is a real, high risk.
“If [mandatory retrofit legislation] affects the CID disproportionately — I think it becomes an equity issue,” said Bertron.
According to the SCIDpda report, people of color comprise 82.5 percent of the CID, compared to only 30.5 percent citywide. Also, 21.4 percent of CID residents are over the age of 65, compared to 10.7 percent citywide. The median household income in the CID is $13,389 a year (the poverty rate is 34 percent), compared to $63,470 citywide.
“I think that people here are more at-risk than people in newer neighborhoods, or people in buildings where property owners have more capital,” said Bertron. “This is important to keep in mind. I also think that the culture of these historic buildings — this has been the CID — home to API people for more than a hundred years — [is important]. [These URMs] provide a sense of place for community and culture — but they also need to be retrofitted.”
Bertron pointed out that sometimes, to cover some retrofitting costs, some property owners will increase rent for residents. “Newer buildings — more rent,” Bertron said, purposely illustrating the concept broadly and simplistically. “When something looks brand new, you are paying for that.” She said this isn’t a viable option for many Chinatown property owners.
“Am I supposed to make the rent go up?” Kay said. “And force all these poor people out? A lot of people ask me this — ‘Why don’t you make the rent double what it currently is?’ I ask, ‘Do you want me to make this guy homeless? Put him on the street?’ They say, ‘Well, no.’ I say, ‘Well, what do you want me to do?’ I’m going to feel bad because I know these guys.”
More information about URMs can be found at the City of Seattle’s website, short link: goo.gl/LfnRcN.
Stacy Nguyen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.