By Kai Curry
Northwest Asian Weekly
“When the (I-5) freeway was built in the 1960s, it created a blighted community, a very unattractive space, and it also cleaved the community in half.”
These words, spoken by Tom Im, began the first community meeting of the I-5 Underpass Park Steering Community, part of Interim CDA. Delayed due to the pandemic, the committee, which has been in place since 2016, decided to get moving again on plans to improve the area underneath I-5 at Jackson and King Streets.
The Committee has sought community feedback before, when it collected close to 300 surveys in 2016 from International District residents as to their thoughts on what to do with this mostly unused space that is an aesthetic and safety concern.
At this meeting, held online on Aug. 18, the committee and its team of designers and urban engineers, from SiteWorkshop, ZGF Architects, and others, brought forth, for the inspection of attendees, diagrams of the plans so far. The site, which is already occupied by the parking lot in the middle of King and Jackson, poses some challenges due to a heavy grade, especially on the Jackson side, and due to certain WSDOT restrictions such as needing to have maintenance access.
With this in mind, the committee, along with community input from the surveys, has come up with what seemed a natural solution for each side of King and Jackson Streets. The parking lot in between will remain as is, but perhaps undergo some small improvements, such as decorative fencing and enhanced pedestrian crosswalks.
“We wanted to make sure that it works within the context of this community, being a residential community, being a small business neighborhood, being in Chinatown, the International District, where it has three unique neighborhoods which includes not only Chinatown, but Little Saigon and Japantown,” said Im. “We wanted also to help to displace some of the criminal activities that happen in the area. We want to also activate the space. But we also want to understand that, although we want to make the space accommodating for our residents, businesses, our elders in our community, employees that work in the neighborhood, we also have to understand that it’s underneath the freeway.”
In particular, the committee has come up with plans for primarily recreational, or active, activities on the Jackson Street side, and artistic, or more relaxing, activities on King Street. SiteWorkshop and ZGF Architects helped meeting attendees understand the current vision, which is still only a draft, subject to change upon further input from the community.
“Over on Jackson Street, it’s more of a louder transit corridor, a busier street and the space at Jackson is not at grade with the sidewalk,” elaborated Taj Hanson of ZGF. “It sits about eight feet over the top of the sidewalk, so it’s harder to reach, and this was a big reason that, as we worked with the community, there was a strong consensus that we needed a recreation destination here, something that would be an attraction and draw people into this hard-to-reach space. The King Street side is adjacent to the sidewalk. It’s a quieter street and it’s also part of a cultural corridor that’s evolving where you have the Chinatown gate, the Wing Luke Museum, [and] thinking about it as a gateway into Little Saigon. So, this side of the site was thought to be more about a passive art walk that people can enjoy as they walk under the underpass.”
Recreational activities proposed for the Jackson Street side include basketball and skateboarding, as well as performances on a centrally located stage. On the King Street side, a dog park has been suggested for one end, while seating for those waiting in the Food Bank queue has been suggested for the other end; throughout will be opportunities for art that will take into account the makeup of the neighborhood.
“We’re thinking of King Street as more of a canvass for the pedestrian pass-through experience, creating flexible space that really highlights the neighborhood and cultural identities,” said Jon Pagan of SiteWorkshop. According to Pagan and others on the team, with additions such as murals and plants, the team hopes “we can find creative ways to express the site’s history, really being a connection to other cultural resources like the Wing Luke Museum.” Ways that this could be done include using bamboo to create semi-transparent walls, or incorporating archival photographs of businesses that existed in this spot before the freeway went through, such as Cherry Land Florist, Chinese Hand Laundry, and the Jackson Street Community Council.
During the meeting, time was allotted for breakout sessions in which attendees and one team member were put into groups to brainstorm. Safety was a major concern in every conversation.
Insightful tips were brought up about the bamboo—that it not be too thick in case ill-meaning people wanted to hide behind it—or about decorative rocks—that none of them be too small or detachable so as to invite ne’er-do-wells to collect them for harmful intent such as vandalism.
Great attention was given by the breakout groups to the care of the elders in the community.
Most attendees wanted to increase the amount of seating and ensure that there were safe, ADA accessible places to walk.
Breakout participants also wanted to ensure that any additions were culturally sensitive. One attendee reminded everyone of the meaning behind the paintings on the columns in the parking lot—that they represent the story of the koi fish that eventually turns into a dragon—and asked that future renovations build upon this already existing cultural material.
“The narrative…about perseverance in the community, the koi fish turning into a dragon…how can the pattern pull inspiration from the existing columns and speak to similar narratives in the community about perseverance?” Hanson restated the comments made by this group member and the idea that any new paving added could incorporate a related design. “The koi fish scales could be part of the pattern, transitioning into something related to the dragon.”
Finally, everyone wondered who would be in charge of maintaining this improved space? The committee stressed the importance of forming close relationships with International District organizations, and the hope that eventually Seattle Parks would take over the space. To discuss this and more, the Steering Committee will be polling International District residents on the streets at the end of August and holding a second community meeting at the end of October.
For more information or to provide feedback, contact I-5 Underpass Park Steering Committee member Lizzy Chong Baskerville at email@example.com.
Kai can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.