By Mahlon Meyer
Northwest Asian Weekly
The artist’s first rendering of the proposed 29-story tower was not too popular with activists, who were once again, well organized with several speakers who oppose the project. The opposition, voiced at a June 14 International Special Review District (ISRD) review board meeting, was partially about the project’s height and thus its potential to block sunshine to surrounding areas.
But the architect for the project, dubbed Fujimatsu Village, came in hand with a series of slides that showed how his firm had repositioned the tower from the south side of the site to the north and had broken it up into smaller wedges that appear less imposing.
The changes also seemed to indicate there would be less blockage of sunlight.
Members of the review board were pleased with this “evolution,” as the architect described it, and said that it more fully coalesced the proposed construction into the landscape of the buildings around it.
Board member Ming Zhang said having the tower at the north end of the
site also “made perfect sense” because it would contribute to “the transition between Chinatown and downtown.”
The design team describes the site—the corner of Fourth Ave South and South Jackson Street—as the “gateway” to the Chinatown-International District (CID).
Supporters: it increases safety
One argument of the developers, which involves a partnership between Da Li International and Fujimatsu LLC—owned by Tomio Moriguchi and the Moriguchi family—is that the project will increase the safety of the area.
“Hundreds of new residents and patrons of retail shops will bring eyes on the street, and with that, safety,” states the briefing materials.
“Young people are scared here,” said Brittany Wu, echoing that point, who identified herself as the manager of the Refresh Café and Smoothie Bar in the CID. “It’s really dark when it’s night. So I think we really need some new buildings coming here to bring people interested in Chinatown and to bring more retail stores.”
Fujimatsu Village is designed to have two stories of retail space rising from the ground floor.
Proponents of the project argue that the large retail space, along with an increase of foot traffic and street amenities, such as lighting and trees, will lift that part of the district out of darkness and what they say are many drug deals that go on in the parking lot.
“This is not only what I and others in my generation want to see, but it’s also what my grandma, who lives adjacent to the Danny Woo Community Garden on South Main Street, would want to see. Whether it’s me or my 75-year-old grandma, we get scared and feel unsafe walking around Chinatown. We have to tiptoe around broken glass on the street or keep our distance from those consuming drugs,” said Lawson Wong, who said he lives and works in the CID. He referred specifically to a bus stop near the parking lot that would be replaced with the building.
Opponents: it gentrifies the community
Those opposed to the project said the many low-income residents in the district could be priced out of the area with the advent of more luxury housing.
“Could the average resident of the neighborhood afford this building?” asked Max Chen, who has lived in the neighborhood for 15 years.
Sue Kay opposed the project because she saw it as another manifestation of the forces that had eaten away at the community, including stadiums, light rail, and luxury condominiums.
“It saddens me to see the disappearing view of Elliott Bay,” she said. “And the loss of tree canopy, fresh air for our seniors and residents—I see more shadows coming.”
Kay also said that an earlier development by Da Li had failed to keep “some promises,” although she did not name them.
The architect, John Stout, of Thomas Weber, in his presentation, was careful to spell out what the review board was tasked with considering, and what were its goals.
Among them, he noted, was to make sure the CID remained a “predominant” neighborhood in the area.
Still, it was not clear precisely what that referred to.
More study needed
Board member Elizabeth Baskerville asked Stout to undertake more intense and more frequent community engagement (there had been no interpretation provided in earlier outreach). She reiterated that the review board cannot consider issues of affordability.
It’s outside “our purview,” she said.
Zhang said there seemed to be two predominant views in the community about the project—one in favor, one against. He recommended that Stout not only engage in more outreach but bring more scientific studies to the table.
For instance, he said Stout could undertake a study to gain data about the impact of the building’s shadows on nearby establishments, including the Danny Woo gardens.
Board members voiced enthusiasm for increased foot traffic and more housing. The design team proposes to “preserve the street trees along Main Street and upgrade the sidewalk…which includes widening the sidewalk by six feet.”
The design team is also proposing to widen the sidewalk along Fifth Avenue by setting the structure back.
It also seeks to address community concerns about affordability.
Some of the units will be offered as affordable housing. But Stout was not entirely clear about how many. Out of approximately 250 units, about 78 will be “some form of affordable housing,” he said.
A legacy project
The project is named after the father of Tomio Moriguchi.
Moriguchi chronicled the history of his family, with the arrival of his father in Tacoma in 1923 and then two decades later the incarceration of his family during World War II.
Moriguchi said the project was to be a legacy for his family, and family members would own part of it.
But one opponent also invoked the history of racism in this country and even the same mass imprisonment of Japanese Americans as a reason to oppose the project. She argued the gentrification of the district was one more step along the same path starting with the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882.
Christina Shimizu said her multi-generation family business had been ruined by the closure of the Washington Medical Clinic, which was once part of land donated to the Keiro nursing home. Keiro closed in 2019 amid intense rancor over who was to blame (Moriguchi was one of its founders).
Shimizu linked past acts of racism with current gentrification.
“Who is the development for if we are priced out of the neighborhood?”
Still, Pui Leung, a supporter, said the CID needs “a balance between affordable and market rate housing.”
The aim: a transition between the CID and downtown
For Moriguchi and the design team, the concept is a transition between the character (and height) of the buildings in the CID and those bristling across the way in downtown.
One slide shows a neat white arrow rising up at a vector that starts in the low valleys of the CID, accelerates upward like a gust of air over the planned development, and rides up, cresting over the roofs of downtown’s high rises.
The building goes up to 270 feet but could go further depending on how the top is utilized, said Rebecca Frestedt, coordinator for Columbia City Landmark District and ISRD.
Because of the location, inside the Asian Design Character District, its design is required to conform to preexisting motifs.
During the presentation, Stout showed designs of buildings in the neighborhood, seeming to promise that the new building would resemble their appearances. He also mentioned his firm is known for sustainability, affordable housing, and high rises.
Melanie Mandry, an opponent, said the project was “exploitative” of the culture in a “fetishistic way.” She called it a “vanity project” and said the community did not need to attract tech workers.
“It is not going to be for us, and I also mentioned Da Li is an international developer and so the interests are not for the people currently living in the CID, carrying on the legacy, so please, I’m begging you to reconsider this project,” she said.
A large retail space builds consensus
As the board members considered the project, the ghost of a consensus seemed to emerge—that the retail space, slated for the first and second floors, would be key in determining whether or not the building could indeed serve as a transitional space.
Baskerville asked if it would be “welcoming” to the community coming from lower income areas. She also asked if the space could accommodate smaller businesses—like many of those that constitute the neighborhood.
Stout assured her it could.
Supporters said they hoped the project could bring new types of commerce to the district.
“I hope to see more variety of retailers, such as clothing or salons or personal goods and products coming into the Chinatown-International District,” said Young Ye who works in the CID.
One area that was not addressed, and that could potentially complicate plans, is the future of the light rail construction planned by Sound Transit—either through the CID (on Fifth Avenue) or around it (on Fourth Avenue).
Amanda Keating, a senior principal in Weber Thompson, responded to an email about this.
“Regarding future Sound Transit, the project does not rely on either scenario for the light rail line and can be constructed in either configuration on Fourth or Fifth,” she said.
There was also no discussion of how any space within the building might be used to honor or preserve the history of the Moriguchi family or Nihonmachi (Japantown).
Mahlon can be reached at email@example.com.