By Assunta Ng
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
Supporters and opponents of the new Bush Garden development, called Jasmine, packed Hirabayashi Place on May 28. Although no formal decision would be made at the International Special Review District (ISRD) board meeting, both sides urged their respective supporters to show up.
Jasmine, a 17-story development consisting of micro retail, affordable housing units, and market-rate condos, would be the plan for the Bush Garden property (formerly Elgin Hotel) and nearby vacant warehouse at 614-620 Maynard Avenue South. It is the brainchild of James Wong, founder of Vibrant Cities.
A Chinese immigrant, Wong was raised on Beacon Hill. He graduated from Cleveland High School and the University of Washington. Wong and his father had worked in Chinatown restaurants.
Wong worked for China Gate and other Chinese restaurants.
While there are those that support Jasmine for its design of enhancing cultural preservation, opponents reject it, saying it is not in character with the district. Supporters said Jasmine will enhance vibrancy and safety of the area. Opponents criticized its affordability with high-priced condos. Another issue both sides disagree on—what to save from the Bush Garden property.
A “dead corner” was how Pang Qiu Fang depicted the area where Bush Garden is currently located (Maynard Avenue and Lane Street). “No one lives there, no businesses and it is dirty … and unsanitary. We, the seniors, rarely walk around that part of Chinatown out of fear and crime.
Seniors have been robbed at that corner. Now, I heard that James Wong who has …generations working [in Chinatown], wants to invest here. I am excited about this. He can develop elsewhere like Bellevue and yet, he chooses to come back and give back to the community.”
Pang, 87, spoke in Cantonese on behalf of the 30-plus seniors at the meeting, who were all dressed in white T-shirts with the slogan, “Yes Jasmine.”
Aware of the fact that the Denise Louie Early Childhood Center is founded by the late community leader-activist Bob Santos, Susan Yang, executive director, hasn’t attended many of these community meetings about the development. She is concerned about the safety of the children, parents, and families in the International District (ID). Compared to the hotel development across from her day care, Yang said she favors Jasmine. “Vibrant Cities has the best interest at heart [in providing housing and businesses in the ID].”
Erin Demmon, who represented the 50-unit tenants’ association of Pacific Rim Center on 10th Avenue South, said she is happy with the project design and “the beautiful fusion of the modern and new architecture.”
“The [Jasmine] project revitalizes an underutilized and unsafe area for the betterment of our community, especially for the elderly residents who have stated that they don’t feel safe on the streets of their own neighborhood,” read Brien Chow, a trustee, from a letter of support signed by Chong Wa Benevolent Association (CWBA) President Kevin Lee. It also creates “economic opportunities for immigrant families and entrepreneurs,” Chow said.
Both Chow and Tomio Moriguchi, former Uwajimaya chairman and ID resident, agreed that “mixed income residents … can support local businesses.”
CWBA is the “oldest and largest Chinatown organization in the state,” said Chow. It “is the umbrella organization for many Chinese family associations and clubs.”
Jasmine is endorsed by more than 25 Chinatown organizations, and their letters of support were presented to the ISRD on May 28. Many Chinatown leaders had met in April to organize support for Jasmine at the House of Hong.
Frank Irigon, representing Organization of Chinese Americans (OCA), opposes Jasmine.
“ISRD is charged with preserving the ID’s unique historic, cultural Asian American character. It pains me that you are not concerned at all with affordability—apartments and retail spaces … provided by the Jasmine project.“ Irigon said OCA and its allies will continue to oppose the project until Jasmine can ensure there will be no displacement of residents and businesses. Headquartered in Washington, D.C., “OCA is dedicated to the political, economical, and social welfare of Asian Americans,” said Irigon.
Leslie Morishita of InterIm Community Development Association, who didn’t get a chance to speak, sent Northwest Asian Weekly a statement.
“Given its historic and cultural significance, we feel the Bush Garden building should be preserved and restored. That it’s being considered for demolition to make way for a project that is so jarringly out of scale and incompatible with its context is especially dismaying. Once this piece of our community’s history is gone, it’s gone for good. Also, we remain gravely concerned about displacement pressures in the neighborhood that large scale speculative developments like the Jasmine project are fueling.”
Cynthia Brothers, of Asian heritage, also spoke out against Jasmine on the affordability issue.
Is the building safe?
The activists and preservationists would like to preserve the Bush Garden property because of its history. “The proposed project is counter to ISRD’s goals and objectives that address preservation and rehabilitation,” according to the letter submitted by Eugenia Woo of Historic Seattle. “In our opinion, the Bush Garden building holds significant cultural and historic values and deserves proper treatment …The proposed new construction project is out of scale and not compatible with the district.”
However, Joan Seko, the original owner of Bush Garden, wrote it shouldn’t be saved. Seko held her own wedding at the restaurant in the 1950s, and she and her family once lived on the upper level of the property.
“The current structural condition of the building, as I understand it, is unsafe,” wrote Seko in a letter to the ISRD. “We shouldn‘t force the preservation of an unsafe building with many structural issues.” Seko supports the Jasmine project.
“We need to honor our past and embrace our future with infinite possibilities,” she wrote. “Bush Garden Restaurant and the building has served our family and community well for many decades. But it is time for change. We should support construction of a better building and a better future for our community. I am excited to see the next chapter of the building, that will invite more residents of all incomes to the neighborhood and offer small retail spaces so immigrants and young entrepreneurs can run a successful business to support their families.”
Bruce Zhong, a structural engineer and partner of DCI Engineers, was hired by Jasmine to look into its building’s safety. The report stated that Bush Garden was built in 1910 as a single-story building with a basement. The second and third floors were added around 1913.
Zhong’s findings showed that the ”columns and basement wall footings were originally designed for a one-story building. They were not big enough to support the current three-story structure. The existing column footing size is only 50 percent of what it should be.” Due to the bad waterproofing, moisture has rotted many wood joists on all floors. The report called it “a very dangerous situation. That’s why the restaurant floor feels soft and not level. This is due to damaged joists and the settled foundation.”
“The second floor has rain water damage. The floor is deflecting and soft. We don’t recommend anyone walk over the center areas.”
Zhong also studied the walls.
“The west wall is in better condition compared to the other three sides … and is salvageable with new strong back support,” according to the report. The other three sides are in bad condition, “broken and bent … with loose corners. The east and north walls have low ductility and will experience brittle failure that may result in building collapse and possible loss of life.”
Eugenia Woo, of Historic Seattle, argued that the building is no worse shape than others in the ID. The building can be rehabilitated, she said.
The Bush Garden building is not a historical building, but it’s right next to a building in the Chinatown ID designated historic district.
Zhong said the building next door, the New Central building (part of the historic district), is in much better condition, compared to Bush Garden.
When asked if more Bush Garden walls could be saved, Zhong expressed concerns about what could happen in an earthquake, and doesn’t recommend saving more than the west wall. Zhong said he has “to be responsible for public safety. I have to speak the truth.”
Established in 1973 by the City of Seattle, the ISRD’s goal is to preserve the ID’s unique Asian American character and to encourage rehabilitation of areas for housing and pedestrian-oriented businesses.
On the agenda sheet for the May 28 meeting, it printed “the board does not have jurisdiction over affordability levels or individual tenants.”
The board’s purview is on the principal use, demolition, massing, and exterior design of the proposed redevelopment and site.
Lost in translation
The meeting lasted over three hours. The seven supporters of Jasmine signed up early to speak.
They were followed by three speakers from the opposing side. The ISRD extended the comment period from 25 to 50 minutes.
Another reason for the long meeting was because the comments were translated for the non-English speakers.
Bilingual Chinese speakers complained about the translator’s accuracy. In one instance, the translator interpreted a speaker’s stance as supporting Jasmine, when he was actually opposing.
The translator was confused between the two organizations’ official names: Chinese Chamber of Commerce and Chong Wa Benevolent Association. And he didn‘t provide the official Chinese name for Organization of Chinese Americans.
In the beginning, he couldn’t distinguish between Bush Garden and Bush Hotel in English.
Woo suggested that the future board meetings should have an interpreter who is neutral.
Rebecca Frestedt of the ISRD said several community members expressed concerns over the translator. She said the City contracted with a translation company with previous success. But because of the complaints from the May 28 meeting, that particular translator will not be used again for ISRD meetings.
Assunta can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.