By Assunta Ng
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
A protest was held outside Koda Condominiums’ groundbreaking ceremony in Japantown on Feb. 28, creating a rift between the activists and business community.
Located on 5th Avenue and South Main Street, Koda’s property (a parking lot) is part of the Chinatown-International District (ID), and former site of Uwajimaya, an Asian supermarket. Koda developers, Da Li Development USA, bought it from Uwajimaya’s owners, the Moriguchi family, in 2015. Uwajimaya was located there 73 years ago.
Koda’s 17-story building with 201 units received design approval from the City of Seattle’s Department of Construction and Inspections, and also the International Special Review District (ISRD) that regulates design and development within the ID.
Koda also paid over $4 million to the City’s Housing Affordability Living Assistance program in compliance with the up-zoning requirements to increase the building from 15 (150 feet) to 17 stories.
The Koda project will build market rate housing in the ID, Tomio Moriguchi, Uwajimaya’s former chairman said. That’s the reason the family decided to sell the property to Da Li despite several offers, including agencies for affordable housing units. There are close to 200 small businesses in the ID.
Market rate housing would bring in income to support not only Uwajimaya, but all the small businesses in the ID, he added.
Protesters from the Chinatown-International District Coalition, inspired by the late leader Bob Santos’ slogan and the name of his book, “Humbows, Not Hot Dogs!” said the district should build more affordable housing, not luxury high rises. Santos was also the founder of Interim.
The group is fighting the displacement of low-income residents in the ID.
“They continually dismissed people’s concerns and failed to conduct adequate community outreach,” said one of the CID Coalition organizers in a statement to the Northwest Asian Weekly.
“We felt at this point there was no choice but to protest. The City of Seattle has identified the CID community as extremely vulnerable to displacement (in fact there has already been a rise in economic evictions and flipping of once-affordable properties into market rate housing) and we are concerned that Koda will contribute the gentrification and eventual displacement of current CID residents and small businesses (as has happened in other Chinatowns around the country).”
“The property is a parking lot, we are not displacing anyone,” said Kevin Hsieh, vice president of Da Li. “This will be a new building. We are creating more affordable housing. Compare our price to South Lake Union condos, our prices are much lower.
“Our project is not new to the community,” Hsieh continued. “Some of these protesters have attended ISRD meetings. We have made changes according to community input.”
About 20 percent of Koda buyers are ID renters and businesses, and they are excited about home ownership in the ID, he said. Hsieh said deposits have been received for 90 percent of the units.
Hsieh said Koda will provide a building “with all the lighting improvements on the street, and a safer environment” in the neighborhood, including retail space and restaurants.
The protesters, made up of senior residents and young activists, said the Koda development is not meeting the needs of the ID.
Hsieh said his company is taking a lot of risks and making sacrifices.
“We have families, too. We have to make a profit. And we are creating jobs for the community.”
“They (protesters) don’t represent the community,” said Moriguchi, who was one of the speakers at the groundbreaking ceremony. “The seniors are being misguided.”
About one-third of the more than 60 protesters were seniors. Some Chinese seniors carried signs with the English F-word.
“Shame on the protesters, embarrassing the seniors to carry foul-language signs,” said Tony Au, leader of the International Lion Dance Team. “I don’t think the seniors understand the meaning of the sign. They shouldn’t use the seniors to hold those signs.” Au is a fundraiser and organizer of appreciation dinners for seniors.
Peng Qiu Fung, 87, one of the active seniors in Chinatown, but didn’t participate in the protest, said she supports the development of tall buildings.
“We should have more development in Chinatown, including hotels and condos. It will bring more vitality and people to the community, and it will enhance public safety and prosperity. It will discourage the homeless tents in the area.”
Peng also pointed out one of the senior protesters, who helped bring other seniors to the protest, to support her grandson, one of the protest organizers.
During the groundbreaking ceremony, the protesters disrupted many of the speakers with loud noises, including hitting hard objects outside the fenced property.
If Santos were alive, would he have organized the protest?
“He (Santos) would not do such terrible things,” said Moriguchi.
Santos’ was a strong advocate for low-income housing. Later, through the influence of Moriguchi, he supported the idea of mixed housing, too. Apparently, the protesters didn’t know of the five-decade friendship between Moriguchi and Santos. Don’t take my word for it. You can check with Santos’ wife, Rep. Sharon Tomiko Santos.
When asked what the protesters were trying to achieve, Moriguchi said he didn’t exactly know.
The CID Coalition said the protest has raised “awareness that this is the first luxury high rise in the neighborhood and there is community opposition to it.” It also said it had “met its immediate objective of raising awareness and sending a message to Koda, City of Seattle, ISRD, and other developers in the neighborhood and City that they need to make real commitments to this community.”
Da Li chairman and founder, James Hsieh (Kevin’s father), said he felt good about his event, even with the activists’ disruption.
“We have done everything we could,” James said. “We have to persist to get it done — to build it. Why should Chinatown keep the image of being old, dirty, and poor?”
James sees Koda as a bridge between the old and new, since part of his building will face the ID and the other part towards downtown.
A non-Asian guest at the Koda event said he was not surprised by the protest.
“This is happening in many major cities. What Koda tries to do, is building community. What the protesters are doing is building community through the protest.”
Assunta can be reached at email@example.com.