By Ruth Bayang
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
Are all building projects in the boundaries of the Chinatown-International District (ID) required to provide a community outreach report to the International Special Review District (ISRD)?
That’s what Brien Chow wanted to know. He has served on the board of the Chong Wa Benevolent Association for over 15 years and he posed that question at the Nov. 12 ISRD board meeting.
On the agenda was the proposed Uncle Bob’s Place to be built at the site of the former Four Seas Restaurant on 714 South King Street. The board was to review a design proposal for the eight-story mixed use apartment building, developed by InterIm.
“The InterIm project is funded by taxpayer money and Chong Wa Benevolent was not invited to any concept or design meetings,” said Chow. “For transparency and accountability purposes, I am asking [the ISRD board] to recommend more community outreach to the Chinese community, neighboring building owners, businesses, and the non-English speaking residents.”
In a statement, InterIm said, “Since mid-2018, Uncle Bob’s Place has been presented at the CID Forum once, the CID Kick-Off twice, the ISRD board five times, a community happy hour at the Dynasty Room once, and has been featured in community newspapers four times.”
The ISRD’s role is to preserve the ID’s “unique Asian American character and to encourage rehabilitation of areas for housing and pedestrian-oriented businesses.”
There were few questions on Nov. 12 of the architects on how Uncle Bob’s Place would fit in with the neighborhood — a stark contrast to the previous ISRD meeting on Oct. 22 where board members were vocal about the need for a “gesture” to honor the history of the Bush Garden building for its Jasmine development.
The Oct. 22 meeting was standing-room only, and a good portion of attendees were protesters who were supporters or members of Chinatown-International District (CID) Coalition, better known by some as “Humbows Not Hotels.” The CID Coalition previously protested against the project on Aug. 27 at the Bush Garden site.
There were no protests or any sign of protestors at the Nov. 12 meeting speaking out against plans to demolish the Four Seas building, but there has always been resistance to demolishing Bush Garden, despite Bush Garden being more structurally unsound, according to former building owner Joan Seko, who has testified once and written two letters about the safety issue.
Bruce Zhong of DCI Engineers, a firm commissioned by Vibrant Cities, has said he is concerned the building will not withstand an earthquake. While both buildings have historical and cultural significance, neither has a historic building designation, yet InterIm has not met the level of scrutiny for Uncle Bob’s Place as Vibrant Cities has with Jasmine.
Tony Au has worked with a dozen Chinese organizations in the ID, and he said none has heard about InterIm’s outreach for Uncle Bob’s Place.
“All projects should be fair and give everyone a chance. The board should make things faster for all types of development. Why should it take so long for developers just because the projects are not for low-income housing?”
The Northwest Asian Weekly received an informational letter about the InterIm project, in English.
InterIm said it will introduce the project at the January 2020 CID Forum, a monthly community forum for sharing neighborhood information that it facilitates. Past participants in the forum have included representatives from various Chinatown groups such as Seattle Chinatown International District Preservation and Development Authority, Chong Wa Benevolent Association, and neighborhood advocates.
In addition to sending letters targeting English and non-English speakers, Vibrant Cities said it has spent countless hours walking the entire Chinatown neighborhood, talking face to face with each business owner and employee about its Jasmine project.
“We obtained a total of 63 signed letters of support for the Jasmine project. We also got 324 signed letters from CID residents of all income brackets and ages,” James Wong told the Northwest Asian Weekly. Wong is the founder of Vibrant Cities and owns the Bush Garden building.
He added, “We then emailed the 387 letters in two files to Rebecca [Frestedt, ISRD coordinator] to be forwarded to the board. During our ISRD meeting, a board member asked whether the community supported Jasmine. I believe the herculean effort of securing our 387 support letters may have been overlooked by the board.
Additionally, we had some of these community outreach slides in our draft packets for [the Oct. 22] meeting and Rebecca asked us to remove them. Her feedback was that it was not necessary to let the board know about our outreach … And when we presented… the board asked us again to do outreach. What’s the fairness in this?” asked Wong.
Uncle Bob’s Place will be eight stories tall with commercial space on the lower levels and 100 percent of affordable housing units above. InterIm will manage the housing of Uncle Bob’s Place, while the Chan family, owner of Tai Tung Restaurant and the former Four Seas Restaurant, will manage the commercial space.
Jasmine, a 17-story development, will consist of micro retail and market-rate condos.
A third party perspective
Eddie Tsay is a developer with an ongoing development project in the University District, and his family has other real estate holdings throughout the greater Seattle area.
“I think James [Wong] is very brave!” he said of the Vibrant Cities CEO. “He wants to do a good thing for the area and also make money.”
But Tsay said a project like Wong’s is not something he would take on.
“[Chinatown] is definitely not a place where I’d be putting in my money right now,” he said, because he prefers to “avoid areas that have become contentious.”
Tsay said there is a great need for affordable housing, and he said a portion of his portfolio is in that space. But he said there needs to be a balance.
“You get a very undiverse group of people, if you build all affordable housing. You won’t have enough money to reinvest in your properties.”
And one of the consequences of that, Tsay said, is run-down buildings.
“You need people who can pay more in taxes, otherwise you can’t invest in more public infrastructure,” said Tsay.
Guan Hui Qui has lived in government subsidized housing in the ID for 25 years. She said at the Nov. 12 ISRD board meeting, “I don’t want to see more low-income housing. I’d like to see more vitality in our community, more businesses and new buildings. I don’t want to see Chinatown turn a corner with no prosperity.”
Huen Ping Wu is another long-time Chinatown resident. He has lived in low-income housing for 16 years.
“I’d like to see Chinatown create lots of businesses. The more businesses we have in the community, the more job opportunities for our people. The more people in our neighborhood, the better it would be for our safety. Safety and jobs are important to the wellbeing of our community. I’d like our government to approve all new buildings.”
In an email to the Northwest Asian Weekly, ISRD Coordinator Rebecca Frestedt wrote, “The land use code for the ISRD (Chapter 23.66) does not differentiate between projects. That said, each project is reviewed on a case-by-case basis and there has been a great deal more public comment on the proposed demolition about the Bush Garden building than has been received for the proposed Four Seas demolition and redevelopment. All applications for Certificates of Approval are reviewed in accordance with the same timelines, as determined by SMC 23.66.”
Ruth can be reached at email@example.com.