By Mahlon Meyer
Northwest Asian Weekly
Confusion about the correct protocol for voting marred the decision by the International Special Review District (ISRD) board to recommend that a construction project be approved by the city.
Coming at the end of a two-and-a-half hour hearing on Dec. 10 that followed two years of review, two of the three members of the board present voted to recommend that the Seattle Department of Neighborhoods (DON) approve the proposed demolition of the Four Seas restaurant and, in its place, allow InterIm to construct an eight-story apartment and retail building provisionally named “Uncle Bob’s Place.”
However, the vote was interrupted several times by confusion about the proper rules to follow. And, in the end, it was not clear what authority was being invoked to govern the vote or why the issue needed to be resolved that evening.
After hearing a briefing from the InterIm team that included a slide show by the architect and then conflicting views from the community in favor of and in opposition to the project, the board members present were asked by ISRD Coordinator Rebecca Frestedt to take a vote.
The board was already diminished in number from its usual seven, but Frestedt had at the outset of the hearing told the Northwest Asian Weekly that a Seattle City attorney had said that there was a quorum even with only three board members present.
Frestedt said since a vote by two of the three board members would constitute “a majority,” the current board did comprise “a quorum.”
Yet trouble started almost as soon as the voting began.
Stephanie Hsie, the chair, called for a motion to pass the project. And then the second of the three board members in attendance, Sergio Legon-Talamoni, supported it.
Andy Yip, the vice chair, had earlier spoken against the project. He had asked the board to “table it” until more community discussion could be considered and a controversy over the composition of the board could be resolved. He remained silent as the initial vote proceeded.
It was at this moment that Hsie came to believe that she could not second the motion. It was not clear if this was because she originated the motion or if it was because she was chair. She appeared unsure what to do.
She looked to Frestedt for direction, and Frestedt concurred that she could not second the motion.
“So I think if there is not a second, then the motion would not move forward,” said Frestedt. “And there could be a second motion made.”
Following Frestedt’s direction, Hsie continued with proceedings.
“So I’m not hearing a second. Is there a second motion made?” asked Hsie.
Yip then raised a question about protocol.
Frestedt responded, “So absent a second, a motion will fail.”
Throughout the proceedings, a screeching that pulsated several times through various cellphones held by audience members blared in the small confines of the packed room.
Frestedt stopped and said, “It must be an Amber Alert.” Some community members worried aloud it was a fire alarm.
Yip then made a second motion that the project be tabled.
But neither of the other board members supported his motion. So again the motion fell to the floor. Silence reigned again for several seconds.
“So what happens now?” asked Hsie.
Extended laughter went up from the audience.
Frestedt, appearing perplexed, apologized to the audience and asked for a five-minute recess so she could consult her copy of Robert’s Rules of Orders to “see if this issue is addressed.”
“If not, I am actually going to make a call to a historic preservation officer because this is an important issue that needs to be resolved,” she said.
It was not clear why the issue had to be resolved during the briefing and could not be postponed. Initially, she thumbed through a binder on the table.
But then she stood up with her cellphone and strode away from the table.
When the meeting resumed, she stated that the chair was able to vote on a motion. She cited her call with a city officer and added that a consultation with a website related to Robert’s Rules of Orders had “helped” make the determination.
“It is accurate that a chair can be a member to help make a motion move forward,” she said.
Frestedt asked if the board would be willing to redo the voting. She asked Yip if he would withdraw his motion. Yip graciously acceded.
As before, Legon-Talamoni supported the first motion that had been made before the break, but now Hsie seconded it.
Frestedt declared that the motion passed and the project would be passed on for recommendation to the DON.
Another apparent irregularity was that, in supporting the project, Legon-Talamoni read from what appeared to be a multiple-page document that had been written and printed before the hearing even took place.
The fact that he had it ready suggested that he had come to a conclusion about the project, and written out a detailed position, before hearing the community remarks. Indeed, he was at the table facing the community during the entire proceedings so he would have had no time to type up a position.
Yet his statement was detailed and elaborate, and Frestedt asked him to read parts that he had neglected to read. It was not clear if she knew about the contents of his statement before the hearing.
The chief complaint of community members who attended the hearing was that they had not been given sufficient access to the outreach process by the ISRD.
A young woman who only gave her first name, Mandy, said she was speaking on behalf of Brien Chow, outreach chair of the Chong Wa Benevolent Association. She and others complained of being intentionally excluded from receiving notifications from InterIm about hearings. As a result, they could not voice their concerns about the project.
“A dialogue has not been established with community residents and non-English speaking seniors early in the development process in order to share information about the project,” she read from a printed letter.
Betty Lau, who was representing the Friends of Japantown, said her group and others had been excluded from the process, and that when she inquired about it, was told that Interim practices “selective engagement.”
“This is not right because InterIm gets public funding,” she said.
She said she has sent numerous emails asking to be put on the email distribution list without result. And eventually, she received a cancellation notice for a meeting that she went to anyway and found it was still being held.
“InterIm didn’t want me to attend,” she said.
She said the project should be delayed until “thorough, community-wide engagement” took place.
Frestedt, at the close of the meeting, said that the ISRD had done nothing different in notifying the public about the project.
“This project like every other had been publicly noticed,” she said, adding that the ISRD had sent out emails and posted notices on the usual bulletin boards.
“I realize not everyone may be tracking that but I just wanted in full disclosure that we have publicly noticed this in the same way that we have for every other project,” she added.
Other community concerns voiced during the hearing included frustrations that the proposed building’s design did not accurately reflect an Asian theme.
InterIm, on the other hand, repeatedly stressed that the design of the proposed building was meant to complement the Wing Luke Museum across the street.
Legon-Talamoni, in praising the design at the end of the hearing, said the aluminum used at the base of the building “grounded” it. He also mused that it was hard to determine what constitutes an Asian building in the 21st century.
Another point of contention was the proposed name of the building.
Nora Chan, a community activist and founder of the Seniors in Action Foundation, which works to improve public safety in the ID, first asked why the Four Seas building had not been designated a historic building.
“It has held many culturally significant events for almost 60 years,” she said.
She added that she had not been notified about the project.
She then said that the new building should carry the name of a Chinese American. She said that InterIm had a practice of naming buildings in other ethnic communities after people of the same ethnicity. She said there is not a single building in the International District (ID) that is named after a Chinese American person.
But a representative of the Filipino American National Historical Society,
Maria Batayola, said Bob Santos, for whom the building is provisionally named, “kicked off the redevelopment of Chinatown” and is considered by many to be its mayor.
“He worked for all people,” she said.
Businessman Tony Au suggested the building be named after Ruth Woo who helped kick off many political careers, including former Governor Gary Locke, state Rep. Sharon Tomiko Santos, Martha Choe, the late Kip Tokuda, and Supreme Court Justice Mary Yu. She organized fundraising events at the Four Seas.
Why was InterIm’s project considered first? The city responds
Au asked Frestedt why the project was appearing for review before the board so quickly when another development, the Bush Garden/Jasmine development, was taking months.
In an email to the Northwest Asian Weekly, Lois Maag, the strategic advisor for communications, said the two projects are very different.
“The Uncle Bob’s Place development lies within the Seattle Chinatown National Register (NR) District which is located within the ISRD. The NR District considers the Four Seas building “non-contributing” to the historic character of its district. The building was constructed in 1962 which is outside of the “period of significance” of the NR District. For that reason, it was easier for the ISRD Board to support demolition. In addition, when the project was reviewed by the ISRD Board at three separate meetings in which the public is invited to attend, there was no public comment in favor of keeping the building.”
Magg went on to say, “The Bush Garden/Jasmine development is not within the NR District. So, in compliance with the code requirements for reviewing demolition of buildings in the district, the board needs to decide whether the building has architectural or historic significance. In the case of the Bush Garden building, there has been a number of public comments regarding the building’s historic significance to the community.”
When Au questioned Frestedt about the speedy decision, Frestedt allegedly said, “The mayor wants more affordable housing.” Maag confirmed to the Northwest Asian Weekly that the Mayor’s Office “has directed city departments to prioritize and expedite reviews of affordable housing projects to help address the housing crisis.”
Who is affordable housing for?
Another concern was the role of affordable housing in the ID.
Supporters of the project said that the “affordable housing” units offered in the unit would bring back Asian Americans that had fled the ID in huge numbers. Jacqueline Wu of the Organization of Chinese Americans said that from 2010 to 2017, Asian Americans living in the ID had decreased by 20 percent while the white population increased by 107 percent.
Wu said the per capita income for the ID was $35,000, compared to $52,000 for the city of Seattle.
Still, it seemed clear that it was not only dispossessed Asian American residents of the ID that might have their eyes on affordable housing in the community.
A representative of the regional Northwest hospitality and hotel workers union, the Local 8, was among the last to speak.
According to its website, “Local 8 members work in hotels, restaurants, food service, and airport concessions. They include room cleaners, cooks, bartenders, bellmen, food and beverage servers, bussers, and dishwashers.”
He said his union represented “5,000 members between Seattle and Portland.”
“I just want to voice our support for this project,” he said. “This is exactly the type of project that we feel would benefit our members and the community.”
Historic districts and landmarks
The International Special Review District (ISRD) is one of the city’s eight historic districts.
Both 714 South King Street (Four Seas building) and 614 Maynard Avenue South (Bush Garden building) are located within the boundaries of the ISRD. Neither is a designated Seattle landmark.
Four Seas is a non-contributing building within the Seattle Chinatown National Register (NR) District boundary, due to the age of the building (1962) being outside of the period of significance.
And Bush Garden is located outside of the NR boundary. It is a historic building — based on its age, not landmark status, which can be designated only by the Landmarks Preservation Board. Bush Garden’s contributing status has not been determined and confirmed by the ISRD Board.
*Information provided by the Seattle Department of Neighborhoods