By Ruth Bayang
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
SEATTLE — The fifth International Special Review District (ISRD) board meeting—about the Jasmine project on 614 Maynard Avenue South—appeared to move the project forward.
Though no formal action or final vote was made at the Feb. 22 Zoom meeting—which lasted nearly three hours—the majority of the board said they agree with the project vision and that they support the community room proposal on the first and second floors.
Jasmine—a project by Vibrant Cities—is a proposed 17-story building at the site of the historic, and now vacated, Bush Garden Restaurant. Bush Garden will relocate to a new building within the Chinatown-International District (CID), at the site of the former Four Seas Restaurant on 714 South King Street.
This was the first ISRD board meeting about Jasmine since the most recent board election in November, and the only board member who has sat in on all prior meetings is the current board chair, Andy Yip.
Safety vs. preservation
Two board members, Lizzy Baskerville and Matt Fujimoto, raised concerns about the “massing” of the proposed Jasmine building—which refers to its general shape, form, and size, as well as the building’s relationship with its surroundings.
While Baskerville acquiesced that zoning laws allow for 17 stories to be built, she said, “I think it is out of scale and I think it’s too tall.”
Baskerville and Fujimoto also had questions about the need for demolition after a newly submitted report by Dan Say of Swenson Say Faget (SSF), a structural engineering firm. The report was commissioned by Eugenia Woo, Historic Seattle’s Director of Preservation Services.
“We do not support demolition of the Bush Garden building and we submitted a third party structural engineers [report]… engineers who basically said that the building can be rehabilitated, that it’s a viable candidate,” said Woo at the meeting.
Bruce Zhong of DCI Engineers— the firm employed by Vibrant Cities—said of the SSF report,
“Mr. Dan Say… doesn’t have the detailed investigations of the building… he just walked around the building and presented his opinion based on his past experience, on the other buildings in Pioneer Square… and that’s a totally different structure.”
Baskerville said SSF was not allowed inside the building, and Fujimoto—who stated that he is an architect—asked, “Why not just let someone in the building?”
Developer James Wong, the CEO of Vibrant Cities, said the building is empty and that “we’re letting go of the potential revenue [from tenants] because it’s unsafe.”
Board member Ming Zhang expressed his frustration about the topic of demolition being raised yet again, especially after three years of discussion.
“This is my first time in this board meeting… [the ISRD board] spent four meetings before and it was all about structure, structure, structure. Today, I thought the fifth meeting was about massing… now we’re still getting back to [structure]… this board and the community needs to make movement.”
Both Zhang and fellow board member Nella Kwan agreed that discussions about Jasmine have taken much too long. Kwan also took issue with the SSF report submitted by Say—who is on the Washington Trust for Historic Preservation Board of Directors.
“He’s doing it on behalf of Eugenia [Woo] so I’m not sure whether or not that is nonpartisan and so, in some ways, I don’t feel like that would do any good for us.” In her closing comments, Kwan said a non-partisan opinion on the structural soundness of the building and “not one an opposer brings to the stage… would be ‘cherry on top.’”
ISRD Board Coordinator Rebecca Frestedt said she had been in possession of the SSF report since late 2021 but did not release it to the board until a week before the Feb. 22 meeting as she felt it might be overwhelming for the newer board members. Vibrant Cities did not receive the report until after the close of the business day on Feb. 18.
Responding to community member comments about Jasmine being regarded as “luxury apartments,” board member Ryan Gilbert asked if Vibrant Cities had plans to reserve units for affordable housing.
To which Wong answered, “They are already built in affordability requirements, and we will meet or exceed those.”
Later in the meeting, Frestedt stressed that the affordability issue is not within the ISRD board’s current purview.
Gary Reddick, director of design for Otak, the architectural firm working with Vibrant Cities, presented the options for reducing the building’s scale and height. He also discussed design elements created from feedback from community members in previous meetings—such as what the building would feel like at the street level: welcoming, light-filled spaces that can show activity from the sidewalk, and incorporating art and historical exhibits throughout the building.
Reddick presented a design that turns the whole first two floors of the building over for community and commercial use—a space that nonprofits and other organizations can use for a nominal fee.
He said, “We think of this building as that bridge element to take the memories, goodwill, and history of the past, and combine it in such a way that it becomes the place that starts all of those future memories… Our dream is that Jasmine serves as the vessel for that energy and the place where new memories are made and will continue for generations.”
Baskerville stated that the proposed community space “is very exciting to me… all this activity, weddings and parties… and keeping that spirit of Bush Garden.”
Small business owner Elaine Ikoma Ko voiced her support for Jasmine “as someone who’s worked on the ground for affordable housing.”
She said, “I think Vibrant Cities—being local and ready to go—I think the board needs to take that seriously. The costs are going up… supply chain issues, I think we need to move forward.”
Community member Nina Wallace disagreed.
“[Jasmine] does not, in any way, honor this building’s legacy as a site of affordable housing for immigrant laborers and as a gathering space for Asian Americans and other communities of color.
Past vs. future
Three blocks away from the Jasmine project is another site where the former Four Seas building was demolished to make way for Uncle Bob’s Place—which will have commercial space and new housing units. This site is in the Seattle Chinatown Historic District, while the site of the Jasmine project is not, yet the ISRD board approved the demolition of Four Seas.
Wong said Interim CDA, the developer of Uncle Bob’s Place, wasn’t put through as much scrutiny as Vibrant Cities has.
Yip, the board chair and only member who has been involved in all meetings related to Jasmine, responded to an email request for comment from the Northwest Asian Weekly.
He said, “In general, every project stands on its own merit and it is hard to compare two projects because they are never the same.”
Zhang stated that it’s important to look at the future of the CID—and urged the community to think about how to make the CID a sustainable and vibrant community.
“It’s not only about preservation,” he said. “How do we attract different types of people—young, old, different cultural backgrounds?”
He said the CID shouldn’t only be a place for affordable senior living and he said development is important for the long-term viability of the community.
Board member Michael Le thinks Jasmine would be really great for the community.
“With the community space, that’s something that we need….it’s very considerate of [Vibrant Cities] to do that… there’s not a lot of buildings that would just offer a free space for the community.”
In closing, Yip said that anytime he hears of a project that could bring more people into the CID—he gets excited. He said he looked forward to seeing more of the designs, especially surrounding the community room.
“After trying to move our Jasmine project through the ISRD process for the past 3.5 years, I feel this past ISRD board meeting and the board’s comments were the most clear and concise on how we can move this project forward,” Wong told the Northwest Asian Weekly.
“I’m looking forward to obtaining the certificate of approval from the board and starting construction on our project so that we can create the much needed housing in the CID and in our city.”
When asked about the board’s suggestion to obtain another report on the building’s viability, Wong said, “We are open to it. My question is who is going to lead, hire, and pay for that nonpartisan third party?” He stated that multiple reports from “well respected, licensed historic architects, engineers, and consultants” have all come to the same conclusion—and that he’s not sure “how many other third parties we need to hire to come to that conclusion again.”
No date has been set yet for the next ISRD board discussion on Jasmine.
Ruth can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.