By Mahlon Meyer
Northwest Asian Weekly
Sitting at a head table, at a Sound Transit (ST) workshop on Jan. 5, that was supposed to cap off community engagement and further studies undertaken by the agency, community activist Betty Lau already had an air of resignation, if not defeat. Lau, from the beginning of ST’s designs to build a transit hub in or near the Chinatown-International District (CID), has been among the fiercest defenders of the fragile neighborhood. But, as the final workshop commenced, she sat quietly, eating half a banh mi sandwich provided by the agency.
“At least I’m getting my taxpayers’ dollars back,” she said.
Her attitude, on a small scale, seemed to reflect the broader disappointment that many in the CID feel with the transit agency as it prepares to submit multiple recommendations to the board’s System Expansion Committee, including one that had apparently never before been viewed or vetted by the community.
Community leaders said they were appalled at the haphazard approach ST has taken to community engagement that has left them feeling misunderstood, ignored, neglected, and that the agency all along has had its own agenda that was aligned with what Lau called “privileged values.”
After communicating with other participants who attended the fourth and final workshop, she said it “felt like we’re being funneled into a cattle chute.”
Lost in translation
This reporter witnessed, as a microcosm of the community’s dilemma, the interaction that Lau experienced with ST agents on Jan. 5.
While ST said, in response to emailed questions, that a single workshop cannot represent the entire range of community engagement, others who were at the workshop and sitting at different tables said they experienced the same things and that these were emblematic of the agency’s long-term approach to engagement: obfuscation, confusion-sowing, and neglect of community concerns.
From the outset, the atmosphere of the presentation was less than professional, according to Lau, a longtime educator and federally-funded Startalk project teacher trainer, which prepares paraeducators, professionals, and immigrants in school districts for teaching and national defense careers with critical languages.
A presenter began the slide show with a raucous whistle—to get everyone’s attention.
Many of the slides were conceptual, and the language used by the other presenters was often incomprehensible not only to the participants, but even at one moment, at least, to one of the very ST presenters himself.
After talking about an “oscillation,” in terms of how the Union Street Station would connect to the community, the presenter paused and said, “Sorry, I’m losing my words now.”
Residents of the CID who were in attendance later said they could not follow much of the presentations.
Even during small group discussions following, when one of the presenters sat down at the head table and was answering questions, Lau said she did not understand what was going on—and she had read the draft environmental impact statement (DEIS) and every one of the more than 5,000 comments made to the agency.
“Over my head”
The scene was chaotic. As presenters switched back and forth, with a Chinese American manager speaking rapidly through a heavy green mask and another presenter using technical language, CID residents had a hard time comprehending the information.
“I will be honest, [ST] used a lot of engineering terminology so most of it went over my head. It would be helpful to have an independent engineer in the audience who could concur or refute the statements. Or at least someone who can explain in layman’s terms,” said Amy Chen Lozano, a spokesperson and organizer for Transit Equity for All (TEA).
ST presented four options it said it would introduce to the board to consider in addition to the ones already on the table in the DEIS.
► Refined Fourth Avenue Shallow with a Midtown station. Cost: $3.1 billion,
► North of CID (with no Midtown station). Cost: $2.05 billion,
► South of CID with a Midtown station. Cost: $2.5 billion,
► North and South of CID (No Midtown station). Cost: $2.55 billion.
Among details questioned by community members, ST stated that the North of CID station would involve construction that “displaces [the] King County Administration Building” for six to seven years. But that building was closed in March and there is no county timeline or decision as to whether it will reopen.
Several community advocates said the combined North and South station concept was entirely new and had never been shared with the CID.
Meanwhile, among the original options still on the table—involving Fourth and Fifth Avenues—a Fifth Avenue “diagonal” is by far the shortest in construction time, taking five to six years, instead of the nearly double time for the other options, a major consideration for cost, which experts said would be the agency’s number one determinant.
One commentator in another news outlet suggested ST simply pay off CID merchants for two years (some CID agencies have already been holding meetings with businesses to discuss their role in handling ST mitigation funding). But, Lau responded, even funding for several years would not be enough given the long timelines for construction.
Moreover, she said the emphasis on a payoff missed the main point.
“‘Privileged’ values could not or would not comprehend anything other than the highest good is money or transit ridership experience, forgetting people of color are also transit riders and we do oppose taking out the CID,” she said.
Commercial interests at the table
But the workshop apparently failed to achieve its objective by limiting the scope of community feedback. At Lau’s table, there was only a single former resident of the CID—Lau herself.
At other tables, multiple members of ST staff crammed the tables, according to CID advocates.
During the small group discussion, ST staff not only facilitated discussion and took notes, but others stood peering over the tables.
Finally, the time allotted for small group feedback was almost nonexistent, at least at Lau’s table.
This was due to a number of factors.
First, ST had promised 45 minutes for community sharing and feedback. By the time its presentation was over, including multiple slides that focused solely on the redevelopment of Union Station, rather than on the station alternatives, there was only 30 minutes left.
At Lau’s table, all of this time was spent with participants simply trying to understand drawings and designs.
“We didn’t have time to express any opinions, we were only trying to understand the material,” said MaryKate Ryan, community preservation associate with Historic South Downtown, at the end.
Said ST public information officer Rachelle Cunningham, in response to emailed questions about such observations, “One of the purposes of these types of forums is for us to learn what people need to better understand so that we can follow up with them with the information they need, either individually or at other meetings.”
But Chen Lozano said, “There was little clarification. Our table oddly had six ST staff, and just one question about the West Seattle connection took three of the staff about five minutes to answer yes or no.”
In addition, at Lau’s table, many others, if not all, represented commercial interests or nonprofits that stood to gain or lose financially by the project.
One Asian American man said he had been active in issues in the CID for a long time.
Lau, who represents the Chong Wa Benevolent Association, an umbrella organization of 21 Chinatown groups that was founded at the turn of the 19th century, said, “That’s funny, I’ve never seen you before in the last 50 years of Chinatown activities.”
The man eventually confessed he owned a “project management and construction company.”
Others at the table were involved in real estate and apparently other commercial ventures. One represented a community nonprofit but never spoke.
“Sacrifices have to be made”
When it came time to share the conclusions of the groups, from table to table, the person standing up reporting on what the group had discussed was a white person who was not a resident of the CID. There was a single exception.
Most of the reported comments involved such paeans as making Seattle a “world-class city” through connectivity.
“You want to be able to take a train and then get right to a hotel room, like in other cities,” said one woman.
“One spokesperson stood out to me—an elderly white man who stood there and informed our community that sacrifices have to be made. This was a personification of history repeating… How many times have we heard about the greater good and how many times have marginalized communities been the ones who were forced to make those sacrifices?” said Chen Lozano.
Asked if such a show of non-residents and non-Asians taking the primary role during the workshop meant that ST had failed in its community engagement, Cunningham responded, “No. Sound Transit’s community engagement is comprehensive, and includes a number of ways in which residents and others with an interest in the project can engage with staff to learn about the project and provide input. We offer a variety of meetings and forums with community members as part of our ongoing engagement efforts.”
Protecting the CID?
Still, there was not a single comment about protecting the CID, although the workshop was, ostensibly, geared to get feedback about the CID.
The sole exception was when Brien Chow, co-founder of TEA, stood up, out of turn, and implored people to remember that ST had not taken Fifth Avenue off the table.
“That’s why we’re here, isn’t it?” he said to the room.
Even the single CID business owner who spoke up at his table was noncommittal, whether because of the atmosphere or for cultural reasons.
He simply said, in general, there were opinions on both sides, without elaborating.
Park lid concept left behind
But perhaps the greatest travesty of the community engagement, according to Lau and others, is ST’s repeated intransigence to address and study one of the more popular ideas floated by community advocates—the park lid concept, which would build an overpass beside Fourth Avenue to divert the 30,000 daily cars that pass down that thoroughfare should ST choose to construct there.
“ST is missing the opportunity to show us through data evaluation and analysis what the issues with a lid are and then to collaborate and problem solve together with community civil and structural engineers, as called for in its Racial Equity Tool,” said Lau.
Despite a somewhat heated interchange during the small group session, the note taker for ST did not include Lau’s questions about the park lid on the white sheet of paper overlooking the table, said Lau.
When sought for clarification, multiple times, ST failed to answer questions as to whether it was a priority for ST to study stations, foremost, rather than mitigation strategies.
“As we have shared before, a lid is not practical because it would need to be higher than existing adjacent roadways to provide clearance to trains below; it would be a substantial structure with deep foundations; there is limited space for support columns, posing a potential conflict with BNSF, Amtrak, and Sounder operations; and it would require additional staging near Fourth Avenue South,” said Cunningham.
ST provided to Northwest Asian Weekly a drawing it said showed that the agency had studied the issue.
“The attached engineering drawing was created as part of the study and illustrates the challenges that make the structure impractical. Because it is not practical, we have not done a cost analysis, and instead are focused on developing other strategies for mitigating potential traffic impacts,” said Cunningham.
But a city planner, who insisted on not being identified since his commenting on an ST project would jeopardize his job, said the drawing “does not look like a cross section through the Weller Street Bridge, which they say is the problem.”
On the contrary, he said it is designated so that it is “looking south.” But, the city planner noted, Union Station is shown to the left of the railroad tracks, which means it is, in fact, looking north.
The drawing, he said, “does not make sense regarding ‘the lid’” concept.
A last-minute effort?
ST has seemed to become aware of at least the perception of poor community engagement.
During the workshop, community leader Tanya Woo noticed that most of a group of seniors had been instructed to leave—and had done so.
“I asked if the seniors had gone to a different room and was told that the seniors had left,” she said. “I asked why and was told there would be a separate event for them. I think my table had about 20 people and most didn’t talk.”
Lau said she noticed ST had put together, for the first time, a fully-Chinese outreach venue. The agency has put out fliers in Chinese only, inviting community members to a dim sum feast, with an Orca card provided, to explain the agency’s position and plans.
Lau said this was inequitable, not just because this was the first time ST had held such an event, but that the attendees would be receiving the material for the first time without adequate time to read and reflect on it. In addition, ST had violated its Racial Equity Tool document by not coordinating the event with any of the multiple Chinese-speaking community organizations in the CID.
The next Sound Transit System Expansion Committee will be held on Jan. 12, from 1:30-4:30 p.m., in the Ruth Fisher Board Room in Union Station, 401 S. Jackson Street.
To view it online or sign up for public comments, go to:
Mahlon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.