By Mahlon Meyer
Northwest Asian Weekly
Community advocates say a construction project by Sound Transit (ST) to create a light rail hub in the Chinatown-International District (CID) threatens to leave nothing but the Historic Chinatown Gate intact.
“I’ve taken a few people into the area, and I’ve walked people through online and on Zoom calls to say this is where these changes are,” said Kathleen Johnson, executive director of Historic South Downtown (HSD), a nonprofit with funding from King County.
“And the people just kind of like look around and go, ‘This is going to be 100% different and after this is done, everything here is going to be completely changed, and it’s the heart. The only thing that’s still going to be there is the gate.’”
Getting details about the project has been a time-consuming, frustrating, and belittling process for members of the community, especially for those who live in the CID.
HSD hired two consultants with over 40 years of cumulative experience in government and transportation to try to make sense of the draft impact environmental statement prepared by ST’s consultants, HNTB Corporation.
The draft statement, or DEIS, was approximately 2,000 pages long and omitted key details, including precisely where the construction for a new light rail extension would go, according to a presentation by HSD.
Community advocates who have been attending meetings with ST before public comment closes on April 28, say it is part of a pattern of obfuscation to elude community understanding of the true devastation that the project will wreak on the district.
“Information doesn’t always inform. Community outreach doesn’t always reach the community,” said a slide in a presentation prepared by HSD, showing a foot-high stack of binders containing technical drawings with specialized language that their consultants waded through to try to make sense of the DEIS. “This isn’t even everything.”
Working from clues provided in the monster report, and piecing together hints and suggestions from acres of vague language, the consultants were able to roughly lay out where the construction would go, how long it might last, and who might be impacted.
The results were not pretty, according to community advocates.
Seattle versus the CID?
HNTB was involved in an alleged conflict of interest in Maryland in 2018 that led to a multi-million-dollar management contract for a transportation project being dropped, according to the Washington Post. The corporation seemed to portray the conflict between two options for construction as pitting the City of Seattle versus the CID.
According to the analysis, construction on 4th Avenue would cause the most traffic disruption for the city, while construction along 5th Avenue would severely harm the CID in profound ways.
Beth Ku showed up at a recent public comment session. She said over the years, Chinatown has shrunk, streets have been lopped off for transportation projects, and the people living there have been moved with force, for instance in 1886 when Seattleites came to the neighborhood with guns to drive them out.
Such a pattern of violence occurred across the United States after Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882. The U.S. had recruited Chinese laborers to build the transcontinental railroad and work in mines. But when those projects were through, they threw the Chinese out. In Tacoma, the city mayor led a crowd of citizens with rifles and torches to force the Chinese in the city’s Chinatown onto ships and burn down their homes. Even in Newcastle, on the Eastside, Chinese miners had built houses along Coal Creek when miners of other ethnic backgrounds, with the connivance of local officials, burned down their houses.
“If any one of you living in a community, your small home, have four blocks, and now has to give some blocks away again to the new construction, I believe you will be against it and say, ‘No,’” she said.
A movement is formed
Partially fueled by feeling blindsided, but mainly horrified by the expected impacts to the CID, a broad movement has developed combining disparate parts of the Chinese American community, including many groups that until recently were divided by profound gulfs in values.
Chinese American groups ranging from the Chong Wa Benevolent Association—which hosted cha cha lessons in their community hall by Bruce Lee in the 1960s—to the United Chinese Americans of Washington (UCAWA), an Eastside chapter of a national organization encompassing Microsoft and Google engineers, have weighed in with a frenzied voice.
Forming the “Save the CID: Move Forward on 4th” campaign, they have heartily endorsed 4th Avenue as the option ST must choose to give the CID a chance to survive.
According to their analysis, which relies on the ST DEIS, the 5th Avenue option will mean the closure of 5th for up to a decade, the closure of Weller and King Streets for years, dump trucks coming to multiple staging areas (where tunnel dirt is extracted and loaded) every 10 to 15 minutes, up to 21 hours a day, and a line of trucks waiting on 6th Avenue virtually all hours of the day perhaps with their engines idling.
According to Brien Chow, chair of the Chong Wa Benevolent Association Outreach Committee, businesses and restaurants that will be forced to move will not survive.
“It takes three years for a restaurant to go under. By then, it will be too late,” he said.
Then there is increased noise, pollution, and lack of access for emergency vehicles for the 1,200 older Asian American people who live along or close to construction routes
Winston Lee, president of UCAWA, in February organized a march to commemorate the 136th anniversary of the expulsion of Chinese from Chinatown. The march was attended by more than 1,000 people, including former Gov. Gary Locke and Seattle Mayor Bruce Harrell.
“UCAWA is certainly concerned about the new construction,” he said in an email. “We do prefer not to use 5th Avenue since it will take years and will deeply impact daily lives of lots of people in the CID.”
The other side
The 4th Avenue option, meanwhile, has been described as causing the most disruption to Seattle’s traffic, light rail, and possibly Metro service.
During a recent board meeting of the HSD, Stephanie Pure, government relations administrator for King County Metro, abstained from the vote when others pushed for an endorsement of 4th Avenue along with further study.
The motion passed. But concerns about disruptions to Metro service remain.
Through a spokesperson, King County Executive Dow Constantine said that he would be “taking feedback from the community, as well as from King County Metro, fellow board members, and other governmental partners under advisement as he determines a position ahead of the June vote.”
Advocates of 4th Avenue have said that Metro delivers workers to the CID.
Claudia Balducci, King County Council chair and chair of the System Expansion Committee for ST, said she could not endorse either route at this stage.
“It would potentially put the entire line into legal jeopardy.” she said in an interview.
“Couldn’t we all collectively come up with something that would make this a jewel, that would make this a place people want to come, that delivers folks who will be the visitors to this area that will be of benefit?”
She added, “Now I know that the concerns are largely about the construction time, but once you cover up the tunnel, the impact of it is sort of done, so that’s what I worry about, I worry about how do we get through five, six years of construction and save the folks who are doing business and living around that.”
Asked, in a follow up email, how the ST board, which is composed of officials from the entire region, could exercise their rights on behalf of their constituents and at the same time look out for those who are the most vulnerable, Balducci said the board would need to strike a balance.
“In my experience with the ST board, we always have to balance the regional interests of getting the transit system built and the local interests of providing good access and avoiding and addressing local impacts.”
Harrell, also on the System Expansion Committee, responded through a spokesperson about the importance of collecting all community input before making a decision.
“He believes any decision on station options must come after comprehensive and intentional engagement with community members and stakeholders, which is underway now, working to ensure a thoughtful approach, meaningful and tangible benefits, and mitigation for community impacts,” said his spokesperson via email.
Still, critics of ST say that the agency has a history of barreling through neighborhoods, leaving them forever altered. The fact that the final decision about the CID rests in the hands of 18 board members, representing as far-flung locales as Tacoma, Everett, and Lynnwood, underscores this vulnerability.
Balducci, however, said that in her long experience working on the committee, which makes a decision on which option to recommend to the board to vote on, she has been able to work for the interests of her community on the Eastside, and that she anticipates using the same mindset to approach these challenges.
“My goal is that people will say, ‘Yeah, they heard us and they did the best they could given that there’s no easy way, there’s no magic way to just bore through the earth and not damage anybody,” she said.
Community advocates argue that the city and ST are required to use a racial equity toolkit to inform their decision.
A last-minute question about the toolkit was not immediately forthcoming from the mayor’s office as of press time.
Community members attending community engagement sessions shared with Northwest Asian Weekly countless instances in which they had felt slighted or had questions unanswered.
Chow, the Chong Wa representative, said it was not until the final two weeks that he learned about ventilation stations that would expel air from the tunnels into the CID.
And the lack of providing direct and clear answers—for instance not defining what it meant for “full closure” of King and Weller Streets for years at a meeting on March 9— has spooked members of the community.
“What other unknown dangers are there that we might not have considered and know about?” asked George Cloy, a veteran and activist, at a community engagement meeting on April 13.
His question was not answered.
ST claims it has translated important materials into Chinese for a community that is largely non-English native speakers. But the executive summary viewed by Northwest Asian Weekly in Chinese did not appear to have any damage assessments.
Still another issue concerning the community is Harrell’s appointment of Maiko Winkler-Chin, the former head of SCIDpda, to the director of the city’s Office of Housing.
Since Harrell has a vote on the direction of construction—either through or outside the CID—community leaders argue that there is a conflict of interest since Winkler-Chin’s former organization will be in the running for plots apportioned by ST for affordable housing.
Winkler-Chin did not respond to a request for comment. But the Office of Housing said she would “recuse herself from decision-making on existing or future contracts with SCIDpda.”
Still, community members noted that when key votes were taken during public sessions, that SCIDpda, along with Interim, abstained from commenting, suggesting they too were aware of potential conflicts of interest, according to the community members.
“I mean, it’s common sense to speak up when the community is at stake. Why remain silent?” said Chow.
Another criticism analysts for HSD had about the ST DEIS was that it failed to take into account stadium events and the impact construction on 4th Avenue would have on those.
In a public meeting, Johnson said even if the construction disrupts such events, it makes sense to choose the preservation of a historic district that has been trampled on for centuries rather than worry about extra traffic getting to a game.
The people in the CID represent “generations of people who have borne the brunt of major changes in order to sustain regional progress that puts money and real wealth in other people’s pockets, so if somebody else has to…leave for the game an hour earlier, I’m okay with that,” she said. “I also think it’s an incredible opportunity for us to really take it seriously and say we actually want to do this right.”
At the same time, she said it was necessary to take seriously traffic impacts on 4th Avenue, including bus reroutes and impacts to a bus base.
Balducci was aware that there are those outside the CID, including in her own district on the Eastside, who would be willing to make sacrifices to support the CID by advocating for the 4th Avenue route.
“There’s a wide community of folks who care deeply and are invested in that community, that contact me, some of my constituents from the Eastside that feel a great deal of ownership because of their heritage of the CID,” she said.
In the end, advocates for the 4th Avenue route see it as a simple choice.
“I can’t repeat enough. Again I want to say—it’s a choice between people or traffic. 4th Avenue doesn’t affect anybody. 5th Avenue affects three neighborhoods, people’s lives, and 4th doesn’t,” said Chow.
Public comments will no longer be considered by ST after April 28 in revising the DEIS. However, Balducci encourages the public to make comments at subsequent System Expansion meetings on the second Thursdays of each month at 1:30 p.m. and to full board meetings on the fourth Thursday of each month, at 1:30 p.m. The link is on the ST website.
Balducci expects a final decision about options on June 23.
Meanwhile, the “Save the CID: Move Forward on 4th” coalition has over 500 signatures on a petition they plan to present to ST and the Seattle City Council.
To sign your name, go to: https://chng.it/5qMfLLBD
The coalition also encourages residents and others to email a short letter stating “Move Forward on 4th Ave Tunnel Station to avoid 5th Ave impacts” to:
Seattle City Council: email@example.com
Sound Transit Board: firstname.lastname@example.org
Copy Seattle Equity Team Lead: Nicole.email@example.com
Both actions must be taken before April 28.
Mahlon can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.