By Assunta Ng
Northwest Asian Weekly
All things change, even a community center. <!–more–>
The Asian Resource Center built in 1994 to honor Robert Chinn, founder of the United Savings and Loan Bank, was sold to Pacific Charter School Development for $4 million last month to build a new charter school in the Chinatown/International District.
Run by the Robert Chinn Foundation, ARC not only served as a community center and fixture in the ID, it also offered the Greater Seattle community services with affordable fees (much lower than Town Hall and even the ID Chinatown Community Center ran by the Seattle Parks Dept).
One of my unforgettable ARC moments was when Apollo Ohno, Olympian gold medalist and champion of Dancing with the Stars, came to ARC to attend the Asian Hall of Fame in his honor. During the press conference, I asked him to demonstrate some dance steps with his partner. Wow, he did.
The loss of a community center is devastating to many, especially those who have been using and depending on it.
“Hearing the place sold made my heart ache for the Washington State Chinese Cancer Network Association (WSCCNA, which helps cancer survivors and families), and for the community that we served,” said Stella Leong, WSCCNA’s former president.
“There is no such facility in the proximity of Chinatown that our community members which is easily accessible and also affordable for WSCCNA.” The group’s rent for the past three years was $500 a month, including utilities and internet plus use of other spaces for exercise and dance classes in the 13,700- square-foot building.
“When I heard the building was sold, I had expected BAM – Bruce Lee Action Museum would be the buyer,” said Bettie Luke, a community advocate and sister of the former Seattle City Councilman Wing Luke.
“I was quite saddened by the news as I had just returned from my vacation in Korea,” said Mitchell Fung who played basketball often at ARC. “I had grown accustomed to playing there and the management there would play with me.”
“Hearing about the ARC closing was heart-breaking,” said Marvin Eng, 2014 Asian Weekly Foundation’s summer youth leadership program coordinator.
The program had held events at ARC for many years.
Another community member, Fred Yee said, “The Seattle Asian Community has lost a gathering place in the Chinatown-International District for community events and gathering.”
“I have heard that several schools are actively looking to locate in the ID which seems to me to be a sign of the changing times,” said Don Blakeney, executive director of CID-BIA Business Improvement Association.
Blakeney had mixed feelings about the sale of the building to a charter school group. “The presence of new young children and parents would certainly benefit the District, but change is a double-edged sword. We have to make sure these incoming changes and neighbors enrich the neighborhood and don’t displace what is unique and special about this community.”
“We were sitting on pins and needles for almost a year once we heard the building was on the market,” said Leong. “I have reached out to ARC and the Robert Chinn Foundation to plead for our needs and the community needs but failed.”
Derek Chinn, secretary/treasurer of the RCF and also son of the late Robert Chinn, said although he is sad to see the sale of ARC, it would be sadder if the foundation had to sell to a developer who would tear down the building for apartments. Now, it’s a charter school, which gets support from the Gates Foundation, he added.
Memories of ARC
“Whenever I was at ARC, it would remind me of the Chinn family (who built ARC)- I knew all of them,” said Luke.
“The building especially evoked memories of my experiences and friendships with the family,” said Luke, including Robert Chinn’s children, Karen, Valarie, and Derek.
“My memories as a coordinator are closely tied to the building itself,” said Eng. “I will always remember walking into the center on the first day to meet all of the students in the program. It was exciting and overwhelming …The building was the space where a lot of growth happened for me as a leader and for the students themselves (as upcoming leaders). The memories I have of it will be with me forever.”
“The ARC is a key facility for the Asian community in the Puget Sound and I was honored to be able to have had an opportunity to be a part of its own history,” said Eng.
Sale was inevitable
“We were losing money every year since we started, $50,000 a year,” said Chinn. “(The building) is falling apart. We did our best to keep it going.” The building was in bad shape and it needed major repairs. Although some community groups approached RCF, they thought it wasn’t a good investment, he explained.
“I was aware the building had maintenance issues with kitchen and room spaces, and those would be expensive projects,” said Luke. “So perhaps selling was one solution.”
In addition, the family was not getting younger, and none of the third generation wants to take over running the center.
The family also sold its bank in 2003 at $60 million to the Washington Federal Savings Bank and the ID Post Office building to the City of Seattle for Hing Hay Park expansion at $3 million a few years ago.
“With the owners being a school, I wondered if the attractive entrance would be preserved and what would happen to the tiles of donors?” said Luke. (ARC had fund-raised in the Asian and mainstream community from time to time.)
“Both the glass outside on the fence and the tiles inside on the walls—I had bought tiles for myself and my two children,” she said.
Chinn said his family is “working with attorneys to develop policy to disseminate the money” to non-profit groups. “I look forward to giving back the money to the community.”
“With the new owner, a public funded chartered school for under-served children, I remain in hope that the new facility may still be available for and engage in some community events… at least, that is my hope,” said Blakeney.
The new charter school of the Summit Public School (SPS) will be called Sierra.
Why the International District/Chinatown?
Jen Wickens, chief regional officer of SPS responded, “We are honored to serve the CID community because of the neighborhood’s rich history and powerful diversity. Community leaders and families have expressed an incredible amount of excitement about partnering to build a free, public, heterogeneous high school in the CID that prepares all students for college success. In addition, we are thrilled that the school provides easy access to public transportation options for families throughout Seattle.” Wickens also said there is no plan to tear down the existing building.
“We will remodel the existing building,” she said. “We will keep the exterior look and feel to honor the space and its important significance to the community.”
Sierra will have 100 9th grade students and will add a grade each year until the school can house a total of 400 students (9th-12th grades). (end)
Assunta Ng can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.