By Jason Cruz
Northwest Asian Weekly
In a cramped basement on a warm, late afternoon in July in the International District (ID), concerned residents of the neighborhood anxiously awaited a meeting of the International Special Review District Board (ISRD), to hear details of the fate of Bush Garden.
Vibrant Cities, itself a business located in the ID, will be creating a mixed-use building of businesses on the street level and residences on the above floors. Known as Jasmine, Vibrant Cities pledged to keep the Bush Garden spirit alive in its revitalization of the space. Designs will merge culturally relevant micro retail space and residential homes into a unified concept.
Joan Seko, whose family owned and ran Bush Garden from 1957 to 1997, supports the new development “wholeheartedly.”
“It is wonderful that James Wong and Vibrant Cities are dedicating themselves to keep the integrity of the past history of the site.”
Located in the center of the ID on Maynard Avenue and South Lane Street, Bush Garden has been a mainstay for over 60 years. Vibrant Cities purchased the building in 2016 and it is in the initial stages of revealing its plans to renovate the building.
The ISRD meeting on July 24 was the first between the Board and Vibrant Cities regarding plans for the site. Many in the audience were concerned over the future of the spot rich in history, as one of the central hubs in the neighborhood. Resident Christina Nguyen read excerpts from Bob Santos’ book, “Hum Bow, not Hot Dogs,” which outlined the importance of the Bush Garden as an iconic part of the neighborhood. Santos, known to many as the unofficial “mayor” of Chinatown, was a mainstay at Bush Garden. According to the bar’s owner, Karen Akada, Bush Garden became the first karaoke bar in Seattle in the 1970s. Aside from a karaoke bar, it was a meeting place for neighborhood leaders, politicians, and other city influencers. The site highlights the importance of community in the ID with strong links to the past.
Others expressed the concern that the development of Jasmine would be too expensive for current residents in the ID. According to Vibrant Cities’ founder, James Wong, they would ensure market rate and affordable housing.
“Affordable housing is something I’m passionate about and committed to,” stated Wong. He also discussed the project with Santos, who wanted to collaborate with him, prior to his passing in August 2016.
“We would like to maintain and support the rich cultural history.” Wong also stated that Akada would be welcome in the new building.
Wong spoke at the ISRD meeting to introduce himself, his company, and partners, and explain the process of development to the board and those in attendance.
“When thinking of how best to design a great project for this unique neighborhood, we met with over 30 community members to get their feedback on what’s important.” Wong’s family came from Hong Kong to the United States, and he told his personal story as an immigrant who started with nothing and built a business here.
He added, “The overall themes we heard were to ‘respect the rich culture and heritage of our Chinatown International District.’ There was also a call to respect ‘elders and families.’” Wong reported to those at the meeting that community members wanted mixed housing, and for people to live in the neighborhood and support businesses.
Historic definition of project
The Bush Garden building and property is outside the National Register of Historic Buildings and is outside the defined historic district, therefore not a designated historic building.
However, because the project is within the boundaries of the ISRD jurisdiction, the project is subject to design review of the ISRD and they have jurisdiction over the exterior appearance of the site and its general use.
What is Option 3?
Adaptive reuse of existing building with a new L-shaped tower that requires departures to maximize use of building for residential units, including affordable units and micro-retail on ground floor.
• It retains the design of original building (façade) to recognize the aesthetic and cultural nature of the neighborhood
• It maximizes the ability to have a mix of residential units, both market and affordable housing, of different sized units
• The design meets the maximum effect of micro-retail on ground floor, promoting more business opportunities
• The design enhances safe and vibrant pedestrian traffic on all sides of the property
Some concerned community members believed Bush Garden to be a landmark in preserving its history.
The architect who did the presentation for Vibrant Cities for this meeting said the building is currently underutilized. The restaurant closed in 2016, though the bar remains open. The second and third floor of the building are empty.
Seko said, “It is wonderful that James Wong and Vibrant Cities are dedicating themselves to keep the integrity of the past history of the site.” She expressed her support for what is described as Option 3. “The building is too old to be safe and needs to be replaced. The new structure will provide and support new small businesses and low-income housing. It will serve the community well and make the ID economically and socially stable.”
Also, Michael Omura representing the SCIDpda, stated that their board sent a letter to the ISRD to allow Vibrant Cities to work towards their preferred alternative — Option 3.
The jurisdiction of the Board is limited to the outside presence of the structure, new construction or remodeling, and the demolition of any building or structure. The Board does not have any impact on the developer’s decision on the use. A Certificate of Approval must be issued by the Board and the Director of the Department of Neighborhoods before the City will issue any permits. Once Vibrant Cities provides an application, the Board will review and determine whether to provide a Certificate of Approval.
“The timing of the Certificate of Approval process, from the date of initial application to issuance of the Board’s decision, is largely determined by the scope of the application and the timeliness of the applicant’s response to any additional information needed to complete the application,” stated Rebecca Frestedt, the Columbia City Landmark District and International Special Review District coordinator, in an email. “The timing can vary widely from project to project.”
The role of the Board is to review applications for Certificates of Approval to affirm that they meet the requirements of the land use code, the ISRD Design Guidelines, and the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards. If the Board determines that the proposal does not meet the requirements, they can ask for revisions or additional studies that are responsive to the code.
For an application to be approved, it requires a majority of seated Board members, so the decision does not require full agreement or consensus. Community members may provide verbal or written public comment about an application and the Board will take the comments into consideration in their decision-making.
Wong intends to support immigrant businesses in the new building. He envisions “micro retail” spaces in the new structure to assist in fulfilling the dream for some of owning a business. Micro retail sites are 400 to 1,000 square feet in space, which are smaller than traditional storefronts. The idea is to house many small, family businesses in these spaces as part of its commitment to the community.
Once Vibrant Cities receives its blessing from the Board, it will move forward with the design and the hope is to break ground on the project sometime next year.
Jason can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.