By Mahlon Meyer
Northwest Asian Weekly
When Betty Lau was a girl, she climbed up a crabapple tree on a vacant lot in Chinatown and pulled off all the fruit. Her father, who ran a laundry, forced her to climb back up the tree and reattach the fruit with wires.
“Everything is owned by somebody,” he said.
But the question of who owns what today in Seattle’s Chinatown-International District (CID) and who should determine its future, is no longer clear.
Sound Transit (ST), which had $3 billion in revenue and funding last year, has set its sights on the CID. The behemoth plans to scoop up parts of the CID in its plans to expand a transit hub, shutting down part of the district for up to a decade.
Now a community leader, Lau argues this will be the end of her childhood home.
“This is really about money, power, and arrogance that deep pockets and authority can bring.”
Lau and others hope that all of Seattle will rise up to save the forsaken community, as the city once did to save the Pike Place Public Market, which they say is another distinctive and defining feature of the city.
But ST doesn’t play fair, they said.
In a series of emails viewed by Northwest Asian Weekly, Lau said she was ghosted when she tried to join a community advisory group set up by ST.
In addition, before the pandemic, ST sent agents to contact merchants solely along 5th Avenue in the district, according to community leaders who spoke with them, yet the agency now maintains that both 4th and 5th Avenues are still options for demolition and construction.
Finally, ST has withdrawn an option for construction that would not impact the CID directly without explaining why, said community leaders.
The need for light rail is pressing and urgent, according to government leaders. Gov. Jay Inslee and others have promoted a massive cross-border initiative with Canada called the Cascadia Innovation Corridor in response to a huge anticipated growth rate in population along the Vancouver, B.C., to Portland corridor. By 2050, the population is expected to increase by up to 4 million. Inslee and his Canadian counterparts wish to link together not just an expanded transit system, but universities, hospitals and other institutions.
At a Feb. 15 ST meeting, community members urged the agency to choose the least-impactful option to develop its new transit hub. Even this option, which is called the “4th Avenue ‘Shallow’ Option 1A,” would mean the full closure of 4th Avenue from Main Street to Jackson for four years, and an estimated nine to 11 years of construction, including the loss of 210 parking spaces in an already highly-congested district.
When Lau heard that ST was forming a community advisory group last year to offer comments on the project, she acted in good faith. According to emails she sent to other community leaders, Lau first notified them about the community advisory group, then signed up herself.
ST stated it never received her application but did so only after three months of Lau sending multiple emails to their government and community relations manager for the central corridor, Leda Chahim, their board, and their civil rights office—all without a response.
“This is emblematic of the way they treat the voiceless,” said Lau.
In the end, Chahim said she “thought” she had responded to Lau’s attempts to join the committee and why Lau had not received a response.
As of press time, Sound Transit had not yet responded to a request to produce any emails from Chahim to Lau responding to her concerns.
Lau and other leaders dismissed ST’s claim that it never received her application. Lau filled out the applications of two other community leaders for them before filling out her own, according to Brien Chow, the chair of the outreach committee for the Chong Wa Benevolent Association, whose application was received and who was admitted to the group.
In addition, Lau took on the role of filling out the applications for others and herself because of her proficiency with such forms. As a lifelong educator, she has garnered over $1 million in educational grants from the federal government.
“Everyone who completed an application from the CID was accepted,” said Rachelle Cunningham, ST’s public information officer, in response to questions.
“What do they have to fear from me?” asked Lau.
According to an ST PowerPoint dated July 16, 2018, it was considering an option of expanding its transit hub in the neighborhood by joining with redevelopment of the 4th Avenue viaduct. The PowerPoint, obtained by Northwest Asian Weekly, depicts a slide with a colored bubble indicating the proposed construction labeled, “Opportunity to partner on 4th Ave. viaduct rebuild.”
This would have been preferred by community leaders, said Chow, because it would mean businesses in the CID would not have to be shut down, streets in the district would not be closed for years, and thousands of older people’s lives and health as well as children’s schooling and youth programs would not be affected.
It would also have meant streets would not have to be ripped up twice at a cost of more taxpayer’s dollars and a double increase in lost years for the community, he said.
But this option has been removed from promotional material shown to the community in 2022, according to Chow. At the moment, community leaders and residents are asked to choose between options that involve either 5th or 4th Avenue, he said.
Cunningham said that an option involving the reconstruction of the viaduct had not been abandoned. However, it was not immediately clear if this was the same option shown in 2018 that would save the CID from significant disruption.
While both of these options would spell massive disruption for the CID, community leaders, given the choice, would much prefer 4th Avenue.
Sound Transit claims both options are under consideration and the final result will not be decided upon until June.
But Lau and another community leader, both Chinese speakers, visited businesses in 2019 along 5th Avenue and were told that they had already been approached by ST agents wanting to buy them out—an option she and others see as tantamount to the death knell of the CID.
ST denied this.
“Sound Transit did not send agents to offer to buy out businesses or begin negotiations to purchase property in the CID or in any other location along the project corridor. Sound Transit is still in the planning phase of the project and cannot make such offers to purchase property until granted authority to do so by the Sound Transit Board. Board authority is not typically granted until after the Final Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) has been published and the Board has selected the project to be built. Based on the current project schedule, such Board authority would not be anticipated until 2024,” wrote Cunningham in an email to Northwest Asian Weekly.
Lau said, “The problem is that those immigrant businesses owners think ST is basically the same as the government and they think they have no choice but to accept whatever they say,” said Lau.
Those who approached the businesses did not speak Chinese, according to Lau, complicating cross-cultural understanding.
“Many thought they could move away for eight years then maybe come back and everything would still be the same,” she said. “But they don’t know that the buildings will be different, the rent will be higher, and how are they supposed to survive for eight years someplace else?”
Cunningham, said it would be unlawful for anyone to approach businesses to attempt to buy them out.
Lau said, however, she had been able to ask this question during a community advisory group meeting—about why the merchants had been approached—and received a different answer.
All meetings are video-recorded for public viewing, but have not yet been posted, said Lau.
Pleading for mercy
At this point, community leaders have come together to simply plead with Sound Transit to choose the least harmful of options for their neighborhood.
If 5th Avenue is chosen, as it appears to be already in the sights of the agency, they said, the impact will curtail the lives and livelihood of the entire community for a decade, putting an end to the ties that bind the community together.
The list of the community institutions that will be harmed, not only by environmental destruction and pollution, but also through shutting off access, includes virtually the entire network that keeps the CID alive, they said.
The Indian Health Board and their clients, all residents, business, and visitors; the Chinese Information and Service Center (CISC) and its children’s programs; Denise Louie Early Education Center; a daycare in Hirabayashi Place; several kung fu Schools; Chinese language schools; Massive Monkees dance school; Bailey Gatzert Elementary School; Summit Sierra public school; Puget Sound Community School; Helping Link tutoring and Vietnamese classes’; the Wing Luke Museum and its youth programs; over a dozen low-income buildings with Legacy House; Hing Hay Park; Donnie Chin Park; Kobe Terrace Park; Nikkei Manor; Chong Wa Chinese Girls Drill Team; and the Chinatown Dragon Team.
Community leaders note that Chinese residents of Seattle were once before driven out of their homes in 1886 following the Chinese Exclusion Act. As a result, a whole consortium of groups have banded together to issue pleas in an attempt to stave off what they fear is the inevitable end of the entire CID—Chinatown, and eventually, Japantown, and Little Saigon.
“With our history in mind, we ask that the light rail be placed on 4th instead of 5th, where the impact on the health of people and the livelihood of businesses in the Chinatown community will be reduced or diminished,” said Winston Lee, president of United Chinese Americans, Washington chapter.
For others, the incursion by ST marked another catastrophe in a long series of erosions of the district’s integrity.
Jesse Tam, past president and current board member of the Greater Seattle Chinese Chamber of Commerce, said, “Unfortunately, throughout the years, the commercial and residential areas of [the CID] are being diminished in size by many other public development projects. The upcoming light rail station will be a major disruption to our neighborhood again…If the development on the 5th continues, it will be devastating, affecting many businesses and will hurt a lot of the elderly residents who call Chinatown their home. Fourth Avenue is a much better choice for everyone.”
Ali Lee, a parent involved with the Seattle Chinese Community Girls Drill Team,, said she was concerned about environmental impact.
“Elderly individuals, children and businesses hit hard by COVID would feel those impacts twofold,” she said of placing the station on 5th Avenue.
Mahlon can be reached at email@example.com.