By Mahlon Meyer
Northwest Asian Weekly
As part of a process that could change the fabric of the Chinatown-International District (ID) yet provide welcome revenue to local businesses, the International Special Review District (ISRD) board reviewed a proposal to demolish Bush Garden, formerly called the Elgin Hotel.
The main point of contention at the Aug. 24 hearing was whether the building, at 614 Maynard Avenue South, needed to be demolished. And while the applicant to build a 17-story tower for residents on the site argued that there was no other choice but to demolish it, community voices and the chair of the board questioned if a third-party, independent reviewer might come up with an alternate conclusion.
Community support for building the tower, called the Jasmine, appeared strong at the meeting. Joan Seko, the former owner of Bush Garden, and Tomio Moriguchi, the former CEO of Uwajimaya, among others, expressed support for the revenue that would be brought in by the approximately 200 residents that would live in the new building. This would provide much needed relief to struggling businesses in the wake of the pandemic.
Moriguchi said he was “personally familiar” with the activism and legacy of the building. Bush Garden was a place where community leaders, such as Ruth Woo and Bob Santos, regularly met with others.
For his part, Santos insisted that community development must accommodate people of all incomes.
But, Moriguchi added, “We need this type of development that will bring more residents and business opportunities to the community, including income to support the businesses that are already here.”
He said he believed Vibrant Cities, the developer, “has the vision and experience.”
Eugenia Woo, director of preservation services at Historic Seattle, said the building would “stick out like a sore thumb.”
“The ISRD has not approved the demolition and destruction of a historic and culturally significant building in the district since it was formed in the early 1970s,” she said. “Let’s not allow this to be the first one.”
Woo also called the developer’s attempts to add cultural or historical elements to the building “disingenuous” because, she said, the developer had repeatedly said it does not consider the building as historically significant. In written comments, she said the development team had “looked to Beijing” for cultural motifs, ignoring the diversity of Asian culture.
Finally, she asked for an independent, third-party review of the structural integrity of the building to determine if demolition is indeed necessary.
Some board members echoed those concerns. Board member Tanya Woo also appeared to initially oppose demolition. Chair Matt Fujimoto asked several times if there was a third-party that was interested in giving another assessment of the project and, if so, to act “expeditiously.” Board member Matt Chan asked for clarification about construction processes.
It was not clear if the entire community was represented. Rebecca Frestedt, who is on the staff of the city of Seattle and coordinates ISRD meetings, reported that due to a technical problem, it was impossible to take calls from community members. In addition, the one community member who spoke in Cantonese was unable to be heard in translation in the Zoom recording.
Such challenges apparently represent an ongoing effort by ISRD staff to be inclusive in their operations. For instance, the next ISRD board member election will be held by mail-in voting, according to Frestedt. But it was not clear how that would affect access to ballots by those that have traditionally voted.
Tanya Woo also expressed concern that the multiple signatories, representing local restaurants and other businesses that supported the project, had not been given a clear picture of what they were supporting.
She said the 17-story tower was a new development that had not been shared with the board before, and even the demolition, described by the development team as unavoidable, was new information.
Gary Reddick, an architect, who was presenting the proposal before the board, did not have a rendering or image of the future tower beyond simple hand-drawn sketches. Earlier renderings were “archival.”
Reddick said he was waiting for input from the community before coming up with a specific design.
But Frestedt said it was a requirement to provide a plan of the structure that would replace the demolished building before the board could move forward.
“I’m trying to help the applicant get to a point where a denial isn’t something that even needs to be considered,” said Frestedt, in response to a question by Woo about stopping demolition.
Near the end of the hearing, which was meant purely as a venue for board members to decide if they had enough information to move forward to a future session, James Wong, CEO of Vibrant Cities, and the owner of the building, attempted to extract a statement from each board member about how they would vote on demolition. Wong grew up in the ID, working at Chinese restaurants.
The frustration, at least partially, also appeared to represent the approximately three years the development team has worked on the proposal. It was not clear if this is a normal amount of time or was exacerbated by the pandemic.
“It’s been a long time since we’ve been in front of the board and a number of you lack continuity with the meeting two years ago and the meeting before that,” Wong said.
“If the decision is made not to approve demolition of the building, then I don’t know any other way, then it’s going to sit there and continue to degrade and eventually fall down,” said Reddick.
And when, at the end of his presentation, Reddick asked the board directly if they supported the development, Fujimoto seemed to balk.
“Please be aware,” he said to the other board members, “it’s a little bit out of place to be receiving a question as directly as that at this point of time.”
A concession made by the development team in an earlier meeting, to provide a community space, was met with skepticism by some members of the board, but endorsed by others.
Reddick repeatedly defined the character of the space as one of “welcoming and gathering.” But some board members said such an emphasis was not in keeping with the activism that had characterized the use of the building in its past.
Wong said he was trying to promote Asian culture and referred to some of his other buildings that had retail space with Asian or Asian-influenced food.
But Woo said the issue was not about preserving Asian culture but about preserving the specific legacy of the building.
Nor was it clear precisely who would have access to the community space, which could be on the first and second floors of the building.
Woo, whose family owns the Louisa Hotel building, said that in other such buildings in the ID, such spaces seem to inevitably end up as property of only the tenants of the buildings. She said that safety issues make it impossible to open the space up to outsiders.
Wong responded that such a space could be used for pre-arranged events such as weddings, banquets, and academic meetings, and offered to provide a legal guarantee in advance.
Frestedt said it was unclear if the board had the authority to enter into such an agreement.
One thing that was largely agreed upon was that the building would alter the fabric of the community.
For some, that was a positive, bringing in residents with more money to spend at local businesses.
Andy Yip, who has led several business associations, said it would “revitalize” the area.
“There’s always got to be a first person who starts something that sets the precedent and there is courage in it,” he said.
But Fujimoto referred to research that indicates that such development can exclude families.
Matt Chan and others added concerns about building exclusively single-unit apartments or condos that would also discourage development that emphasized families.
Woo asked if the units were for tech workers and if bringing in 200 people would help with chronic issues such as homelessness and safety. She also worried about the increase in cars.
All board members said they had enough information to move forward with a decision about demolition, although some board members still expressed concern that the developer had given no other options.
The next meeting is on Sept. 14.
Mahlon can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.