By Mahlon Meyer
Northwest Asian Weekly
The International Special Review District (ISRD) board veered far outside its jurisdiction to respond to public comments about a planned building that would replace a proposed hotel.
At a Sept. 14 review, board members repeatedly stressed that their “charge” was to verify that the planned structure, at 616 8th Avenue South, would not violate the historical and cultural character of the Chinatown-International District (CID). Yet, they found themselves again and again returning to concerns raised by activists and community workers about the effects of construction noise and pollution, traffic increase, and loss of sunlight for older residents of the CID and school children.
Board member Matt Chan said some in the community may have misunderstood the role of the board—it cannot stop construction. But he also echoed the concerns of the activists and workers and asked the applicant for a mitigation plan for both demolition and construction.
“Given the activity that takes place on the adjacent corner, [retirement community] Legacy House and Denise Louie [Education Center] and the [ICHS] clinic, already has some of the worst air in the city because of I-5 and just the situation there, and so with the dust and the construction and the inconvenience, it would be great to have in your proposal some statement about how you plan to mitigate the inconvenience and the environmental impact,” he said.
Yet, at the end of the meeting, when city staff member Rebecca Frestedt summarized the concerns of board members, she did not include those about environmental mitigation. In response to an email from Northwest Asian Weekly, she said, her comments were “a quick, high-level recap of topics discussed during the meeting.”
Board chair Matt Fujimoto also asked for details about how the construction could provide more air and light to the street.
Another major concern was traffic congestion along the streets in front of the planned building.
Board members said that the street is used for dropping off children and is also an area in heavy use by city busses. They said an influx of cars could interfere with the needed room for these activities and clog the street, particularly if garbage trucks and other vendors were considered.
Architect Jeff Walls said that the developer had cut the number of parking spaces by more than 50%. In an earlier plan, there were to have been four levels of underground parking with spaces for 250 cars. Under the current proposal, the space for parking has been cut to two underground levels and 116 spaces for cars.
Board members’ questions echoed concerns raised by activists from the CID Coalition, the International Community Health Service (ICHS), and others. Besides impacting children at the Denise Louie Education Center, which is adjacent to the proposed development, they said the building threatened patients going to ICHS and elderly residents at the Legacy House.
“All of these are neighborhood institutions that are directly adjacent to the property development,” said Carmen Ho, of the CID Coalition. She and others also expressed concern that an apparent lack of affordable housing in the project would raise rents in the district and contribute to further displacement of the community. The CID has some of the lowest-income and oldest residents in the entire city.
Walls said he would consult with the Seattle Department of Transportation about ways to mitigate these issues and return with an updated plan. Board members asked if he had updated a traffic plan to what he provided at an earlier stage of the project. But he replied that the plan was geared toward the building as a hotel.
This was the fifth time the ISRD board had reviewed the project. Originally planned as a hotel, the project was met with such sustained community opposition, the developer came back with several iterations. The current plan is for a mixed-use apartment building with 202 units above a one-story lobby with approximately 5,500 square feet of ground-floor retail space.
The applicant presented a proposal with three possible outlines of a new building. Most board members preferred the second and third options since they hewed more closely to architecture in the district.
Several preferred the second option because it had the most amount of brick facade. In this drawing, on one side of the building, the brick facade reaches up to three levels. On the catty-corner side of the adjacent tower, the facade reaches up two stories.
Fujimoto along with other board members, Lizzie Baskerville, Russ Wilson and Andy Yip, praised this design. They also praised the design of the third schema, which kept the two separate brick facades, but separated them further apart, thus leaving space for more of an open, green space.
Fujimoto and Chan, among others, however, said it was not enough to address concerns about the base of the project, but, they said, the towers that are slated to soar 13 stories above ground also raise significant questions.
After more discussions about windows, balconies, the positioning of the parking garage entrance, and traffic concerns, a near consensus was reached among board members that the building should be a paragon for new development in the neighborhood.
It would set the tone for other buildings, they said, so the developer was encouraged to make it fit with the character of existing buildings as much as possible.
Comments read by a number of supporters, including Nora Chan, founder of Seniors in Action Foundation, and Benjamin Lee, board president of Greater China Hong Kong Business Association of Washington Foundation, supported the building. They said they appreciated that the developer had made changes in response to the community, such as shrinking the size of the development, expanding the size of some units to promote family housing, and promising to market the units to the neighborhood first.
Frestedt laid out the voting plan for the next ISRD board election. It will be a mail-in election due to safety concerns associated with the pandemic and the Delta variant, she said. Residents will have until Nov. 1 to register to vote. Ballots will be mailed on Nov. 8. The deadline for the return of ballots will be Nov. 30.
Baskerville asked about the particulars of getting new voters to register, proposing a Zoom format.
It was not immediately clear if the city’s plan included mailing out voter registration forms.
Mahlon can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.