By Ruth Bayang
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
Nora Chan broke down in tears as she spoke of an ambitious project she kicked off a year ago.
“When I think of the seniors who gave me money, the cash was still warm because it just came out of their pocket… even two dollars touched my heart, so much more than thousands of dollars, because I know that’s how much they care.”
“I don’t know what I’m going to do if we cannot find someone to help us,” said Chan.
She’s referring to the Seattle Chinatown Public Safety CCTV Community Project, which Chan announced at the beginning of 2019.
The goal of the project was to have cameras that provided 100 percent coverage of all outdoor areas in Chinatown, including alleys with night vision closed-circuit television (CCTV), to reduce crime, increase resident safety, and improve the business environment in Chinatown.
The issue isn’t money. It’s that no organization is willing to take ownership of the cameras.
“We have already raised $175,000, which is enough for phase 1 of the project,” said Chan.
She spearheaded the effort a decade ago to install cameras in Chinatown and at the time, Chinatown-International District Business Improvement Area (CIDBIA) managed and monitored the footage.
“BIA had good people, and so did SCIDpda. But those people are gone now.”
Chan said the cameras installed in 2011 are now outdated or no longer working. She is the founder of Seniors in Action Foundation (SIAF), a nonprofit which provides help to seniors living in the Chinatown-International District. Public safety is not within her purview.
But it is within the BIA’s.
On its website, the BIA states that its mission is to “ensure a clean and welcoming district and together with our partners, advocate for an increase in public safety and a healthy environment for businesses and the community.”
Steve Locke, a SIAF volunteer and supporter of the CCTV project, said the local nonprofits are not doing their job.
“The nonprofits are collecting money from the ratepayers. I am being assessed twice a year and those rates are doubling… the job of the BIA is to foster healthy business growth so this can be a thriving area.”
Locke is livid.
“What the city is doing is taking our money and the organization (BIA) that has been assigned to work on behalf of businesses is not addressing the key requirement and the most pressing need.”
In a statement to the Northwest Asian Weekly, Monisha Singh, the executive director of the CIDBIA said, “The CCTV project is one avenue for improving public safety, but it is not the only way CIDBIA fulfils its mission. CIDBIA works with its partners inside and outside the neighborhood to advocate for increased public safety. The CIDBIA board has concerns over potential liability, such as privacy and property damage, as well as the increased operational costs.”
Locke said it’s not just about cameras.
“You have a taxing authority that takes money from businesses, which in turn has to pay a higher rate, leading to increased prices that customers have to pay. What is the community getting other than an increased tax rate?”
Chan and Locke say the need for the cameras has come from the community. The group that is most impacted is the elderly, said Locke.
“They are the ones that are being held hostage in their apartments… they are fearful when they go outside… it doesn’t matter day or night. Our most vulnerable population is not being protected.”
Project Manager Donny Kwan admits even he doesn’t feel safe in Seattle’s Chinatown. He visited the Chinatown in Boston recently and noted that even though it’s older than Seattle, the buildings were well-maintained and the alleys were clean.
He also noticed something else.
“On every light pole, on every corner, there was a camera.”
In Seattle, Kwan said they are ready for phase 1 of the CCTV project. It will include cameras on five buildings on 6th Avenue, King Street, and South Lane Street. All they need is community cooperation.
“We need the approval from all five buildings [to install the cameras],” said Kwan. “Bush Hotel, one of the tallest buildings in Chinatown, is where we would store the server. Bush Hotel is a must… they have internet and the fiber optics already in there. But they said no.”
Kwan said, “The project is probably dead now. We cannot move forward. Even if [building owners] give us permission [to install], we need someone to own the whole system.”
Ownership entails maintenance and management of the system, Kwan said, and being the point of contact, if there are requests to access the footage. He estimated that the cost to maintain the system after the first two years would be $15,000 to $22,000 a year.
As to privacy concerns that have been raised, Kwan said that video footage is accessed only when a crime is committed and the police are involved to help resolve it.
“There is no facial recognition, no surveillance,” he said.
“I even found someone willing to volunteer to monitor the system,” said Chan. “We just need someone to step up and take ownership of the cameras.”
Locke said the cameras are vital to small businesses.
“They cannot survive if the customers stop coming here or are afraid to come here after 6 o’clock at night when it’s dark.”
Singh said the BIA “appreciates the efforts of Nora Chan and Seniors in Action on behalf of the neighborhood. After years of owning the cameras, we have learned the true costs of owning just 14 cameras and are simply unable to take on any more cameras.” She added that the BIA is unable to take on the large expense with its current budget without impacting other service areas such as street cleaning, graffiti, and marketing for businesses.
“I cannot do this all by myself,” said Chan. If the project is truly dead, Chan vowed to return “every last penny” to donors.
Ruth can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.